Saturday night lights on Cork's only 24-hour bus

As plans to massively increase  public transport capacity gain momentum amid calls for a dedicated transport police service, Ellen O'Regan spends the wee hours of Saturday night on the country's first 24-hour bus route, the 220 from Carrigaline to Ballincollig  in Cork
Saturday night lights on Cork's only 24-hour bus

An early-morning bus picks up passengers on the bridge in Carrigaline, Co Cork. From midnight on  January 13 the Ballincollig to Carrigaline bus service is to become a 24-hour service and will operate on a 30 min/60 minute frequency. Picture: David Creedon

It’s 2am on Saturday night, and a double decker bus trundles down Washington Street in Cork City, carrying a few bleary eyed stragglers. I'm one of them.

A student with an apparent vendetta against Bus Eireann launches an impressive karate kick against my window, toppling himself to the ground.

The 220 weaves among swarms of people spilling out of pubs and clubs, and in these small hours of the morning, it feels safer to be on Cork’s only 24-hour bus service than off it.

Over 3.2 million journeys are made on public transport every week in Ireland. Currently just 600,000 of those journeys are on buses outside Dublin, but all that is set to change. If Transport for Ireland's ambitious plans come to fruition, we'll all be taking the bus. 

In January 2019, Cork’s 220 route made history as the first to begin operating 24 hours a day. Linking two major satellite towns with the city centre, Ballincollig and Carrigaline, buses come every 15 minutes during the day, and at least every hour through the night.

A year after moving to 24-hour service, passenger numbers surged by 70%, and a record 1.3 million trips were taken on the route. The 220 set a trend that was quickly followed by several 24-hour bus lines now running in Dublin.

Although the non-stop service is hugely popular, at a tenth of the cost of an equivalent late-night taxi journey, reports of anti-social behaviour are frequent enough that my companion and I are warned to keep our wits about us on our mission to see what a Saturday night is really like on Cork’s late night line.

I was reminded more than once of an incident in June 2020, when a 17-year-old was stabbed in Carrigaline, and gardaí pursued the 220 after the attack to arrest a number of youths on board.

We buy our tickets from a female bus driver, remembering another notable incident on Halloween night in 2019, when a female driver on the same route was threatened with rape and racially abused by a large group of teenage passengers.

Moving off from the city centre at 11.30pm, both floors of the bus are packed. Many seats are filled with merry pairs on their way home from an evening out. Others are travelling home from a late shift at work, the library, the gym. It’s a welcome sight to see other young women travelling alone, and an even more welcome one to see a security guard provided by Bus Eireann hop on for several stops.

There’s a distinct fog of pint and chip breath, but in general the bus feels bright and safe as we trundle from stop to stop through the dark.

The only moment that requires intense eye contact avoidance is when a particularly merry man tries to start a singsong on the top deck.

“This bus is boring!” he proclaims to us all, before stumbling back downstairs.

Yes, it was. Perhaps we got lucky, but apart from a stray karate kick and the threat of some acapella entertainment, it felt perfectly boring.

As we sat among the busload of boring passengers making their boring journeys home, it really felt true that there’s safety in numbers, and that the more that people embrace late night services, the less there is to fear.

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