Commuting on track to become an election issue

IN THE void left by silent politicians, grassroots commuter groups are forming en-masse in an effort to harness support for improved rail services and standards.

The proactive campaigns of lobbying groups such as Meath on Track, Kildare Rail Users’ Group (KRUG) and Newbridge Rail Group (NRG) are fuelled by the daily anecdotes of frustrated commuters.

Their pre-election rallying has aimed to impress upon politicians that commuting has become a defining issue in the lives of thousands.

In Kildare, where scheduled trains can frequently run behind schedule, formal written warnings have been issued by employers following continued late arrivals.

The proposed introduction of daily car parking fees as opposed to the annual ticket currently in use is also the source of great angst with commuters arguing it will result in increased queues and stresses before even taking to a train.

In Newbridge, where the population has increased from 16,000 to 28,500 over the last decade, annual car parking tickets already cost €1,600.

According to Garrett Cummins of NRG who has been travelling to Dublin by train for 17 years, there are still no electronic displays or adequate sound equipment to explain late arrivals.

In the evenings, if the 8.15pm return train to Newbridge is missed, a 90-minute wait follows.

Such gaps in the service, in addition to the omission of Kildare South from the Government’s much lauded Transport 21 strategy and the reduction in Arrow services, dominate the regular meetings of commuters.

Many are also exercised over the sidelining of the Kildare Route project which originally offered improvements down as far as Kildare town. Instead, Transport 21 will only affect towns as far as Hazelhatch, despite most commuters travelling from stations further down the tracks such as Sallins, Newbridge, Kildare, Monasterevin and Athy.

In the climax to the election, a questionnaire (asking three specific questions about impressions of Transport 21, how rail services could be improved and what could be done to bring jobs to Kildare South) was sent to the eight declared candidates in Kildare South by KRUG founder Tony O’Donnell.

In response, local TD and junior minister Sean Power said he had lobbied the Transport Minister Martin Cullen and raised transport concerns such as parking, security, access and prices. Under Transport 21, he maintained that improved services would operate from Kildare by 2010 allowing three times the current number of commuters to travel.

However opposition TDs, such as Labour’s Jack Wall, argued that Transport 21 fails to address the everyday issues that face commuters in this constituency. In addition, a breakdown of IDA visits obtained by Mr Wall found that only two visits were made to seven towns in South Kildare over the last three years.

“In my opinion there is a problem with the fact that Kildare South is surrounded on one side by the BMW region and the aid that this region is afforded and secondly our closeness to the greater Dublin region,” he said. “The IDA, in replies to my correspondence, continually refer to the jobs they have created in the north of the county, however although these jobs are to be welcomed, all it does for Kildare South is to create more commuters.”

Fine Gael’s Alan Gillis contended that Irish Rail needs to be held to account for services that are “routinely over-crowded, late or cancelled”.

He also argues that the timetable needs maximum capacity at peak times as well as expanded services to cover unconventional hours in recognition of the fact that not everyone works 9am to 5pm, five days per week.

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