It chugged and splattered along for a while but the noises worsened until finally we had to accept defeat. The car had driven itself to an early grave.
Deprived of independent transport, I was temporarily thrust into the arms of the rail network. My three-week spell as a rail commuter taught me lots about life, humanity and myself. Here are five of those lessons.
- The trains mostly do run on time
Trains, famously, run on time only in theocracies and brutal one-party systems. This is due to a design flaw. It is also a well-known fact that nothing works particularly well – or, indeed, at all – in Ireland. This is also due to a design flaw. Armed with these two truths, on my first morning as a rail commuter I arrived at the station at 08.28 for the 08.22 train and was shocked – outraged, even – to find that it had departed. I made a formal complaint to the station master, who informed me that he did not care for my complaint, nor was he called the station master.
The Irish are pre-programmed to assume fecklessness on behalf of others. We aren’t quite sure how to react when it fails to materialise. We begin to question everything we think we know about ourselves. If this train is on time, did Brian Boru even exist?
The longest delay to my service was five minutes. Culturally this is regarded as early. I can only presume that Irish Rail’s punctuality stems from a cruel Fine Gael edict. I imagine that under Fianna Fail it was a far more lax arrangement, with developers changing the routes overnight and running all new tracks through flood plains. Leo, one imagines, demands more, particularly on the early morning routes. It may also be from the residual influence of the IMF. Either way, these are glorious times to be alive.
- Train friends are a thing. Sort of.
After a few days on the train you begin to recognise faces. By day four you have to stop yourself from saying hello. Train friends are like real friends only you don’t speak and see each other only briefly and always dependent on someone else’s timetable. When you reach your mid-30s, this makes them almost exactly like real friends.
Train friends are often better than real friends because you can invent everything about them and don’t have to listen to their views about Islam. My best train friend is Louise (I named her after Leixlip Louisa Bridge, the curiously-named station she commutes to that was presumably named after something that happened in Gone With the Wind). Every morning she arrives into Pearse station at the exact same time and stands directly in front of where I sit. We often share a carriage. On days she doesn’t appear, I worry for her. I sit alone in the carriage, bouncing my knee up and down, terrified that she is going to miss her 9am tele-con.
(I should clarify that I am not stalking Louise. The relationship between us is purely platonic. In any case, she is happily married to Ruairi, a barrister who is currently working on a big case in the Four Courts. He’s very good fun and admirably athletic. That said, I don’t care much for his politics).
Sometimes I worry that the predictability of myself and Louise’s routine has left us vulnerable to kidnap. When this happens, she tells me not to worry, buys me a hot chocolate and assures me that Ruairi comes from money so we’d be fine.
- Newspapers are the new disrupters
Back in the old days people on trains loved newspapers. They read them front-to-back and as a result were educated and knew things about the world. We’ve moved on from those dark days now. Today, people are more enlightened so they spend their commute looking at cat videos and silently seething at that guy Dave from school who keeps posting inspirational quote memes.
Buying a newspaper is today regarded as an act of rebellion. Other commuters disapprove. It calls their life choices into question and distracts them from the cats. People stare at you as they walk, their feet inadvertently drifting to the wrong side of the yellow line.
Usually I am the only person on the train reading a newspaper. One day, emboldened by my stance, another man produced an Irish Times from his bag. We smirked and nodded at each other. The other passengers were fuming. Briefly, we were in a gang. When he departed the train at Ashtown, I spilled some of my tea on the ground in recognition of my departed homie. This further angered the other passengers and also made my feet wet.
- It is possible to become a hero on Westland Row
Between 8am and 9.30am, Westland Row is transformed into a stormy river of humans flowing from Pearse Station to Merrion Square. It is a tsunami of commuters. They walk very fast. They are angry about being back in the city. Life has betrayed them. They walk four abreast along the inappropriately narrow footpath in solidarity with each other’s plight. You are forced onto the road, where cyclists and motorists offer gentle expletive-ridden encouragement to return to the overcrowded footpath.
Walking against the tide is not easy. One way to survive this bruising stretch is to pretend you are a fireman attempting to enter a burning building from which everyone is fleeing. This makes me feel heroic and brave instead of scared and sore. I slap people’s backs as they pass and shout “KEEP GOING”. This causes both annoyance and admiration. One man thanked me for my service. He knew.
- Announcements can cause confusion
Train announcements are like political promises: you hope they’re right but you never really trust them. On one memorable journey the robot voice over the intercom proudly declared at each stop that we had reached Grand Canal Dock. Briefly I worried that an estate agent had seized control of the train. After seven stops, the driver’s voice instructed the passengers to ignore the announcements. I spent the rest of the journey worrying about the brutal physical battle taking place between the driver and the robot for control of the microphone.
Even when announcements are correct, the voice is often accompanied by a strange and unexplained Chewbacca-like sound. Presumably this is the sound of inner demons, although whose I am not quite sure.
There is lots I will miss about the train. I will miss the introverts who walk to the very end of the platform, standing in the wind and the rain in order to secure the carriage with the fewest other humans; I’ll miss the extroverts who hold private phone conversations at full voice, blissfully not caring that nobody else on the carriage cares if Julie really is a bitch because of what she said about Emma even though Emma totally doesn’t care.
I’ll miss Louise, obviously.
You’ve been good to me, Irish Rail. I wish your Chewbacca noises, your robot voices and your angry station masters nothing but increased capital investment and diminishing deficits.