Between rising fuel prices, the looming threat of climate change, and soaring inflation, there has never been a more costly time to rely on a car. Many European countries find themselves scrambling to promote public transport to combat these issues. Germany introduced their 9-euro-ticket initiative, allowing month-long, affordable rail travel on all local and regional routes. Similarly, from September onwards, Spain is to make select short and medium-distance train journeys entirely free of charge. Ireland has sought to find solutions as well, but in doing so, another problem has reared its head.
Wanting to encourage public transport use is an admirable goal. For Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan, it has been a cornerstone of his Green Party’s policy whilst in government. When the budget for the upcoming year was unveiled in October 2021, it included in Ryan’s words an “unprecedented and quite radical” public transport fare cut for young people. Since 9 May 2022, students and young people aged 19-23 have enjoyed a permanent 50% reduction on all transport subsidised by the state, which includes Dublin Bus, Iarnród Éireann, Bus Éireann, and the Luas. For many students, this was extremely welcome news, as catching the bus or popping on the Luas to head into college each morning has never been cheaper or more accessible. However, for a large demographic of students, the commute to college is as stressful as ever.
So, the vast majority of Irish students enrolled can, and do, avail of the myriad public transport links available to them.
According to the latest available figures gathered in 2016 from the Higher Education Authority, 52% of Irish students who attend Trinity College come from county Dublin, with a further 27% hailing from the rest of Leinster. So, the vast majority of Irish students enrolled can, and do, avail of the myriad public transport links available to them. However, for the hundreds of students who travel home each weekend to rural communities across the country, the weekly commute back to Dublin is an unnecessarily long and stressful journey plagued by a lack of amenities and decades of government underfunding.
In Ulster, the counties of Fermanagh, Tyrone, Donegal, Cavan, and Monaghan are entirely devoid of active rail lines. This is a result of decades of line closures throughout the twentieth century, which reduced the length of railway tracks in Ireland by nearly 1000 kilometres in the half-century from 1925 to 1975. This leaves students from these counties wholly reliant on bus services to travel to Dublin each week — a situation that many feel is more trouble than it’s worth. Ask any College student travelling from Donegal, and they will tell you that the Bus Éireann service from Letterkenny is delayed more often than not and regularly overbooked, with Expressway services remaining expensive despite the government’s new measures. A student return ticket from Letterkenny is €26.50, with an extra €5 charge for luggage if you have more than one bag. To put this in perspective, the return train from Castlebar to Heuston Station, a journey of similar distance, is €17.60, with no additional baggage charges, more leg room, and no risk of road traffic delaying or disrupting the journey. As a result of the inconsistency of Bus Éireann services that run in Ulster, many students opt to use private buses rather than state-subsidised transport. Private bus companies charge more and operate with reduced frequency in comparison to state-owned companies, and yet are increasingly popular with many rural students who have become disillusioned with the substandard quality of Bus Éireann.
Even those who live in counties with rail access to Dublin are at a disadvantage compared to other European countries.
Even those who live in counties with rail access to Dublin are at a disadvantage compared to other European countries. In a 2017 report on European Railway Performance conducted by Boston Consulting Group, which compared 25 EU countries, Iarnród Éireann ranked last in both intensity of use and quality of service. With inefficient bus services, sparse railway networks and no underground system in the country — is it such a surprise that people still rely so heavily on their cars? Ireland is also at a disadvantage compared to our European neighbours due to our college fees—some of the highest in the EU—and the ever-increasing cost of rent in our capital city. For rural students forced to spend more and more money on either private bus services or petrol for their cars, many are being priced out of Dublin, and potentially of their dream colleges.
Students from rural communities don’t just need reduced fares, they need consistent bus services that operate reliably.
When announcing the cut in public transport fares, Eamon Ryan said that his goal was to “make public transport more attractive for young people, so that using public transport could become a habit of a lifetime”. While the fare reduction is a worthwhile initiative that will benefit a huge number of people, there is no denying that this is just the tip of the iceberg. If the government wants to seriously tackle climate change, and if they want to make immediate impacts on the lives of those living in rural Ireland, then a serious overhaul of our country’s entire public transport system needs to take place. Students from rural communities don’t just need reduced fares, they need consistent bus services that operate reliably. They need Iarnród Éireann rail networks to operate in their counties. When the DART network was built in the mid-Eighties, the Irish government recognised a need for the scaling-up of public transport in this country. After decades of rail lines closing down, the DART provided some hope that we had begun to move toward a better future. Where has that desire to improve our public transport gone? Or did it ever only exist in our capital, as the rest of the country was left neglected? For years, the government has made Dublin its priority in industry, business, education, and healthcare. Therefore, while it is incredibly disappointing and infuriating that they continue to do so with regards to travel, it is unfortunately not surprising.
The 50% fare reduction is an excellent initiative that will help thousands of young people across this country. However, without directly addressing the lack of infrastructure that still exists in towns and villages across this country, rural students will remain heavily dependent on cars and sub-standard, outdated services.