Recent Transport Articles

A couple of enlightening recent articles:

  1. A short but very informative article on the recent history of Dublin’s transport network from An Irish Town Planner’s Blog. Yes, Templebar was set to become a bus station but – absurd as it sounds – from reading this article it sounded more like the Japanese approach, combining bus and rail, shopping centre and offices in the dead centre of the city. Also, although we have had to wait over 25 years for it to reach Blanchardstown, it could have been even worse…the DART was nearly a Diesel train called “Bayline”…
  2. Tim Harford (author of “The Undercover Economist”) describes new research from a PhD thesis that argues that India’s legendarily extensive rail network improved its economy and was not just a more effective way to ship India’s wealth abroad.
  3. CNN talks about how China is spending $50 billion this year alone to expand their high speed network, making America’s $8 billion over three years look fairly tame by comparison.

Stark contrast between Ireland and India’s post-colonial  attitude to their rail networks. Having achieved independence, India kept theirs running, electrified all 60,000km and prepares a separate budget just for its railways while Ireland dismantled two thirds of theirs, ripped up the trams in its capital city and now plans to spend €34 billion to restore a small portion of it by 2015. It still won’t be as extensive as it was in 1920.

A Very Complicated Holiday

Too much? Probably…but it’ll be quite a journey. In my innocence, I thought that – with one month’s notice – I could book some flights at some sort of reasonable price. Not too far off the mark but, in the end, the only reasonable pairing of flights this seasoned traveller could find comes with the added complication of finding a route from Madrid right up to Brussels:

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Aer Lingus – back when “fly for 1 cent!” advertisements were still legal – offered flights for €12; Ryanair even had free flights on some dates. This does make me wonder what’s wrong with Brussels…no matter, however: the bulk of this trip will be spent in Barcelona and onboard some interesting trains enroute to my not-really-that-close-at-all ultimate destination:

  • Madrid – Barcelona on the AVE
    Spain is where the action is for trains right now: I blogged about their hugely ambitious plans to connect up to 90% of their population with high-speed lines by 2020 earlier this year and the very latest installment connects Madrid with Barcelona in under three hours (more than halving the previous rail journey time).
  • Barcelona – Paris on the Elipsos
    A twelve hour overnight journey on the Elipsos Train Hotel, which seems more train than hotel. A special offer from SNCF gets me a shared room (with just one other person), lets me sleep off most of the journey time to Paris and reduces the hotel bill by one night.
  • Paris – Brussels on the TGV
    “Just” a TGV journey to catch the flight home.

The AVE is undoubtedly the highlight: one of the newest and fastest lines in the world, leading to a city I’ve wanted to explore for quite some time. Quite an extravagance, too: it turns out a “3 days in 10” Spanish rail pass can be had for less than the price of this ticket. The Elipsos should be fun – Monocle reported on Germany’s rejuvenated overnight train services last year – and I can’t wait to wake up early in the morning to find myself in Paris.

Then, at the end, I’ll get to see what’s so bad about Brussels. Pictures, etc., to follow.

A Walk to Dún Laoghaire

A good stretch of the legs from Grand Canal Dock out to the western pier of Dún Laoghaire, taking in Sandymount Strand, Booterstown and Blackrock Village enroute. Fine Irish weather – considering our chequered summer thus far – and a mercifully free weekend made this a very fine way to spend an otherwise bone idle Sunday afternoon.

I’ve been meaning to walk this route for some time, with vague notions of following the original Westland Row – Kingstown train line in my head. Ian Marchant’s book, “Parallel Lines”, (extract here) has a full chapter memorably outlining how this line was built as part of an effort to provide a fast link between the first two cities of the British Empire, London and Dublin. More significantly, by providing multiple stops along the journey into the city centre, it was also the world’s first commuter line when it opened in 1834.

Fergus Mulligan’s “One Hundred and Fifty Years of Irish Railways” contains a very detailed account of the line’s construction and first years of operation; one part that particularly struck me describes the “night patrole”, introduced in 1837 to counteract acts of vandalism. On duty from 8pm to 7am, “two hardy men walked the entire line from Westland Row to Kingstown and back” with a weapon, “dark lanthorn” and whistle. Mulligan notes that this must been quite a prospect in the months of January with the “east wind howling across Dublin Bay”.

Whatever became of those men, the new train allowed for the possibility of living in the countryside whilst working in the city and, so, it played no small part in the development of the pleasant suburbs in the south of the city, the results of which can still be enjoyed on a pleasant summer afternoon.

Today, the sight of Poolbeg Station looms large on the horizon, omnipresent wherever you are on Dublin Bay. The tide at Sandymount Strand was out even further than usual, allowing for a direct walk to the footbridge over the tracks at Booterstown Station. From here, a brief rest in Elm Park before a stroll through Blackrock Village before reaching Seapoint and, soon after, the pier of Dún Laoghaire where the Stena Sealink negotiates the harbour opening. A meal in Real Gourmet Burger repairs the damage before a chance encounter with an old music friend and, of course, the DART home.

The Dublin Tram Routes

I remember vividly the introduction to a piece I heard some time ago concerning the old Dublin trams. Picture the scene from Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” where the hero, Stephen Dedalus, waits for Davin outside Harcourt Street Station. Passengers are waiting at the platform watching for the bells of the tram; the dense network of electric wires looms overhead. What would Stephen think were he to repeat his encounter today? He’d think: what on earth happened – Harcourt Street Station closed? Only one, single-decked, tram…and it only goes as far as St. Stephen’s Green? Where am I?

A recent lunchtime conversation spurred this post. Its topic is something dear to many Dubliners’ hearts, although they may not know it. Talk had turned – as it increasingly does these days – to city planning, cars and public transport (specifically, their utter inadequacy). Nationalities around the table were Scottish, American and Irish and each has lived in Dublin for periods stretching from just six months to their entire lives. The topic of trams vs. buses arose and I chimed in, as I like to, with my party piece about how Dublin used to have trams – and if we’d only kept them, we’d be so happy!

I was surprised, however, that nobody else at the table was even aware that we had trams in the olden days. Not just any old trams, either – largely electrified by 1900, Dublin’s network was the envy of the British Isles and a model for all of Europe. Reflecting on this later, I realised that I wasn’t aware of it either until I “stumbled” across an enlightening article on the subject. I would love to provide a convenient link but, alas, the article in question appears in the spring 1960 edition of the Journal of the Irish Railway Record Society. Perhaps – if I can get permission – I’ll reproduce the (extremely lengthy and impressively comprehensive) text here. In the meantime, I’d like to convey the scope of the old tram network in terms of its somewhat surprising modern remains.


Now, how this network ever came to be dismantled is a shameful story and will serve as fodder for a number of future articles; how it came about and was operated is, similarly, a topic worthy of its own discussion. For now, I’ll simply say that the Dublin tram network had its origins in the 1870s, was privately owned by a number of competing companies and it had its unfortunate demise in the 1940s. This article will focus on the routes.

R.C. Flewitt’s article begins, rather amusingly, in much the same way as this one: with an explanation to a “modern” reader of how Dublin once had over 60 miles of integrated tram lines, extending (and inteconnecting) from Terenure to Glasnevin, Sandymount to Howth. Somewhat surprisingly, anybody familiar with comtemporary Dublin bus routes can quickly piece together what the old tram network looked like. This is because many of the older bus routes were originally tram routes. Here are very much abridged descriptions of the “surviving” routes; imagine a shiny silver Luas serving all these destinations:

  • 1, 2, 3: Parnell Square-Sandymount, via Pearse Street and Ringsend Road
    1 opening date unknown; 2 & 3 opened 1900; all closed by 1950.
    Of personal interest to me was that Sandymount was connected to the city centre by tram, implying that Pearse Street, Grand Canal Bridge and the road tracing Sandymount Strand once carried a tram all the way to Nelson’s Pillar. This line intersected a half mile from Ringsend Road with the 4. Flewitt has much to say upon this route, mostly concerning various sidings with local industry, but the most amusing concerns an unlikely accident on the recently-rebuilt Grand Canal Bridge. Once a lifting bridge, a series of unlikely incidents once caused the bowsprit of a schooner to come in contact with a tram, smashing its windows and causing some damage (fortunately, however, nobody was injured).
  • 4: Parnell Square-Sandymount, via Bath Avenue
    Opened 1872; electrified 1901; closed 1932.
    A single-deck route once electrified owing to the height of Beggar’s Bush bridge, in horse-drawn days passengers had to sit down on the upper deck to avoid their heads coming in contact with the low bridge. Today this route serves DCU.
  • 7, 8: Parnell Square-Blackrock-Dun Laoghaire-Dalkey, via Merrion Square and Shelbourne Road
    Opened 1872; extended to Blackrock 1879, Dun Laoghaire 1883 & Dalkey 1879; electrified 1896; closed 1949.
    The corner of Merrion Square was site of one of the worst Dublin tram accidents where a car, owing to faulty points, attempted to go both directions at once, overturned and killed one person. Further along the line, sidings served the RDS and, in Dun Laoghaire, Heiton’s coalyard.
  • 10: Pheonix Park-Donnybrook, via St. Stephen’s Green
    Opened 1906; suspended 1919-1928; closed 1940.
  • 11: Clonskea-Parnell Street-Drumcondra Bridge-Whitehall
    Opened 1899; extended to Drumcondra Bridge 1919; extended to Whitehall 1930; closed 1939.
  • 13: Fairview-Westland Row
    Opened 1916; extended to St. Lawrence Road and Rathmines 1918, closed 1918.
    Perhaps the first route to be numbered and certainly the shortest-lived, closing just 32 days after its introduction owing to the war.
  • 14: Darty Road-Parnell Square-Finglas Road-Glasnevin
    Opened 1905; extended to Finglas Road 1922; extended to Glasnevin 1930; closed north of Parnell Street ~1939; closed altogether 1948.
  • 15: Parnell Square-Terenure
    Opened 1872; electrified 1899; closed 1948.
    Flewitt calls this Dublin’s “first successful tramway”. Today it runs from College Green, as it originally did in horse-drawn carriage days.
  • 16, 17: Whitehall-Terenure and Drumcondra-Rathfarnham, via Harold’s Cross
    Opening date unknown; electrified 1899/1900; closed 1936.
    Today’s non-express, non-premium airport bus, the 16, was originally, with the 17, one of the two “Harold’s Cross trams”. There was a connection to the Blessington Steam Tramway at Terenure.
  • 18: Kenilworth Square-Lansdowne Road
    Opening date unknown; electrified 1899; closed 1940.
    “The Cross Tram”, as it shared or connected with no less than 14 other services, namely routes 5-17 and 22.
  • 19/19A: Glasnevin-Dolphin’s Barn, via South Great George’s Street
    Opening date unknown; electrified 1899; closed 1939.
    “Washerwoman’s Hill” was the site of an accident in 1937 which saw a car losing control downhill, derail and overturn. Interestingly, it fell completely clear of the tracks and there was no interruption to service.
  • 25, 26: O’Connell Bridge-Lucan and Chapelizod
    Opened 1928; closed 1940.
  • 29: Parnell Square-Fairview
    This route survives as the night service, 29N.
  • 31: Parnell Street-Howth
    Opened 1900; closed 1940.
    It’s not entirely clear to me but it seems that although this line crossed the Hill of Howth line at Sutton Cross, the two were not connected as such. It seems also to have crossed the Howth line (what is now the start of the DART line) at Howth station.

Flewitt describes a number of other lines, such as the 5 which connected Pheonix Park with Sandymount along with many other interesting facts, such as sidings which allowed “express trams” pass, notably on the lines to Howth and Dalkey (try to imagine express buses on modern roads). Also, observe how most lines were upgraded and electrified – quite impressive for 1900 (conversion to buses would be treated as simply another “improvement”).

However, beyond these details, what is most relevant is that the routes themselves were not lost. On the contrary; most of them were actually extended (for example, the 4 now serves DCU and the 16 runs out to the airport). What was lost was the regularity, frequency, reliability and the possibility to transfer. The freedom to negotiate our city in confidence and to have a large walkable city area extending all the way out to the suburbs was replaced with traffic-bound fume-belching buses of no discernible timetable and a sprawling mess of new low-density suburbs enabled by an unsustainable reliance on personal transport.

While Dublin was far from the only city to make these mistakes in the first half of the last century, it is notable for the glee with which its lines were torn up and for the paucity of genuinely new routes and connections. When the much-needed Transport 21 is complete – perhaps 15 years hence, if ever – we will have a transport network perhaps as connected and, crucially, useful as it was back in 1920.

What is most galling is that we had it and we threw it away. Perhaps Joyce was right to leave after all.

New Year Train Article Watch

When I established this blog, I wasn’t sure what it would become: a place to post photographs, post essays on computing or perhaps, more prosaically, unused, unread, and gradually extinct. Beyond one relatively popular article on Lotus Notes and a few rants about Apple Macs, the computing angle never really took hold. I didn’t mind: much more successfully, the blog has served as a platform for my better photographs and, since they’re mostly taken when abroad, it has drawn the blog towards becoming my own personal travelog. I am very happy about this: it has allowed some friends disinterestedly chart my progress around the globe and, perhaps more usefully, highlighted one or two interesting sights to future travellers.

The third intended pillar of this blog along with computing and photography was a topic related to travel, that of transport and, specifically, trains. I’ve been moderately successful with regard to this topic but the few train-related articles were only spurred by trips to Switzerland and Japan and have not enabled this blog to become the train-related blog of minor interest I had hoped for. In lieu of a substantial article of my own (coming any day now), I’ll discuss and link to several enlightening articles I’ve recently encountered:

  1. February’s edition of Monocle focuses on existing and planned train projects in Germany, Turkey and Japan. An opening article glosses over the (obvious) environmental benefits in favour of the lesser-discussed political and economic benefits of train travel. International lines are emphasised here, citing the Channel Tunnel as a success and hailing proposed lines almost everywhere from Helsinki-St. Petersburg, Algeria-Morocco and even between North and South Korea as encouraging signs for the future of the world (and not just trainspotters). Further indepth articles cover the rejuvenation of the German sleeper services and a journey between Istanbul and Tehran on the TransAsya Express.  Perhaps less useful but still entertaining are two more photoessays on staying fashionable on the German ICE from Koln to Leipzig and on Japan’s shinkansen from Tokyo to Fukuoka. Some of the articles linked to here are sadly subscription-only but, at time of writing, the print edition remains available in shops.
  2. Saturday’s Guardian contained an article about Spanish trains. “Train in Spain sets out to beat the plane” discusses the Spanish Ave, a huge success in recent years and which is set to link Madrid and Barcelona later this month. Within a couple of years it hopes to link Madrid with Paris with a journey time of just four and a half hours and, domestically, the Spanish government plans 10,000km of high-speed track by 2020, with a high-speed line no more than 30km distance from 90% of the population. The gulf between Spanish and British attitudes to and plans for train travel is not left unexplored.

Cable Cars

Frommer’s recommends taking the Powell-Hyde cable car from Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf. An excellent suggestion, as it turns out – Union Square doesn’t take long to see and Fisherman’s Wharf is a notorious tourist trap…joined by a fun cable car ride, however, they all make for an enjoyable day out.

There seem to be conflicting theories as to how the cable car came about:

  • the inventor saw a horse injured when the carriage it was hauling up a typically steep San Franciscan hill broke and fell.
  • the inventor was also the inventor of a very strong type of steel rope, the monetising of which he was completely stumped until he realised that it could be used in a slightly bizarre mechanism to haul passengers up the steep slopes of the city.

Well, maybe it’s both. They are absolutely perfect for the city, though – slightly old fashioned yet unique…and perfect for steep streest. So perfect, in fact, that at their peak, over 100 miles of cable car lines criss-crossed San Francisco. However, as usage slowly declined, so lines began to close. Just before they all disappeared forever, local campaigners managed to make the city see sense and in 1964 the cable cars were designated a national landmark.

Just three downtown lines remain, a fascinating (and surely very rare) example of old-style and one-off train systems remaining in use in a major city.



Return to San Francisco

Well…after yesterday’s “excitement”, I wasn’t even sure whether to venture up to San Francisco. However, the hotel was booked and the city’s only an hour away. Should worse come to worst and I get sick again I can just lie down in a nice air-conditioned hotel room for a few hours. Either way, it’ll be more fun than Mountain View. Off I go.

The Caltrain connects downtown San Francisco with San Jose and the many towns inbetween, including Mountain View. Several “express” services at morning and evening rush hour take 45 minutes between San Francisco and Mountain View while most services take 60 minutes.


I guess by American standards this is pretty good – really I’m lucky there’s a service at all – but on weekends the time between Mountain View and the city is an astounding 75 minutes. Bear in mind it’s only 35 miles!

Anyway, I arrive in San Francisco at 11.30 and instantly am glad I came. I’ve wanted to return here for years, ever since spending just a single day seeing Alcatraz and visiting a record store while touring California. Even that was enough to know I liked the city. This time, I’m staying downtown near the Embarcadero. MOMA is top of my list of things to see and do and is only a few blocks away. Off I set, gazing upwards and snapping everything in sight.