‘Leaves on the Tracks’ = Punters off their backs?

Posted: March 4, 2014 in Current Affairs
Tags: , , ,
A typical DART, ie stationary

A typical DART, ie stationary

 

Whilst there is no doubt the leaves of Autumn lend a simple rustic beauty to our pre-Winter landscape, for many they represent little more than an annual three month headache, coming as they do with all their inherent nuisance qualities. From farmers to gardeners, from road-sweepers to home owners, the half-ounce menace that is the leaf wreaks its havoc far and wide. However, there can be no group more acutely or adversely affected from leaf fall as the Irish public transport user.

For the hundreds of thousands who rely on public transport to get to and from their place of work every day in this country, the sight of early Autumn leaf fall is met with the same sense of dread as the dark mornings and the drop in temperatures.

Whilst no mode of transport escapes the wrath of the leaf entirely, none is curtailed to the same degree as our rail system, as a quick glance at the performance statistics on Iarnród Éireann’s website shows. Indeed the Autumn months routinely account for the worst performance stats of the year, with up to 20% of trains failing to arrive on time during the months of October to December. So dominant is the theme of leaf-fall at this time of year in transport circles that any inquiry at all to Iarnród Éireann concerning rail performance is met with a detailed automated email response citing leaf fall as the sole reason for train delays. Terms such as ‘co-efficient of friction‘, ‘leaf mulch’ and ‘traction gel’ populate the email which leaves (no pun intended) nobody in any doubt as to what’s to blame for a significant percentage of the population arriving late to work for months on end and costing the exchequer untold millions in the process.

But is Iarnród Éireann telling the truth? Are leaves the only reason for these severe delays? And if so, can anything be done to counter the scourge of the evil leaf?

Whilst it’s not hard to see how wet leaves on tracks and the subsequent adhesive issues could adversely affect the smooth passage of a train, there are several factors that question whether they are the sole cause of the delays.

In September of this year Austria’s national rail company (OEBB) challenged a decision of the local transport authority that ruled OEBB should reimburse passengers who had experienced delays as a result of adverse weather conditions. The case was brought before the European Court of Justice (ECJ), where it was ruled that weather conditions were not, in fact, a valid excuse for train delays. In delivering its verdict the ECJ stated:

“in the context of railway passenger transport contracts, the most usual causes of force majeure, namely difficult weather conditions….. in fact have a foreseeable statistical frequency even if their individual instances cannot be predicted with certainty. This means that the prospect of them occurring is known to railway undertakings in advance.”

In the context of Ireland this is akin to Iarnród Éireann justifying train delays because they consider leaves falling in Autumn to be an unforeseen occurrence. According to the ECJ ruling, leaves should not lead to significant delays if the rail company in question takes the requisite pre-cautionary and corrective measures. With up to a 20% reduction in trains arriving on time in the Autumn months, clearly Iarnród Éireann is not taking these measures.

Furthermore, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest the poor, defensive leaf is taking more than its fair share of the blame. For example, Northbound commuters on the 08.39 Dart from Salthill/Monkstown often find themselves scratching their heads when the ‘leaves on the tracks’ line is trotted out to explain delays of up to 15 minutes – an extraordinary amount of time when one considers the service originates from only one station away at Dun Laoghaire. Were leaves to be the cause of such delays between two stations, extrapolated over the course of the remaining ten or so stations between Salthill and Dublin city centre one would be looking at a total journey time of approximately 2-3 hours and not the 22 minutes it actually takes. Can leaves really be an issue between two stations but then no issue at all between the remaining ten?

Further anecdotal evidence of ‘leaf scapegoating’ can be found in the regular sight of intercity trains whizzing through provincial stations at speeds in excess of 100 k/h. Seemingly the wheels of these trains are made from sterner stuff.

There is more than a suspicion that leaves have long been used as a convenient, catch-all excuse to cover for the greater failings of Iarnród Éireann, such as driver tardiness, a lack of on-going maintenance and poor overall organisation – ‘Leaves on the tracks equals punters off our backs’, as it were. Whilst leaf fall is no doubt unhelpful, it’s difficult to see how it can be the sole reason for causing such widespread mayhem to the entire rail network. And even in the unlikely event that it were, why then do Iarnród Éireann not take any preventative measures to combat the problem. As rail users across the country can attest, the sight of Iarnród Éireann employees carrying out maintenance work on tracks is as rare a sight as the 08.39 Northbound Dart from Salthill.

With Ireland’s public transport costs among the highest in the EU, is the expectation to have on-going track maintenance during these troublesome months really that unreasonable? Whether leaf fall is the sole reason for poor public transport performance is highly debatable, but there is little doubt it is a contributory factor. As such, surely Iarnród Éireann should put measures in place to deal with this annual nuisance. As we approach December, perhaps it’s too late for the sufficient changes to be implemented this year but there is no reason why the company can’t begin to put the measures in place to prevent the evil leaf wreaking the same untold damage next year.  After all, to paraphrase the ECJ, leaves will almost certainly fall from trees next autumn too.

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