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Dublin: 14 °C Tuesday 7 July, 2020
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Why should commuters have to put up with trouble and danger on public transport?

We have all been subjected to annoying, intimidating or downright dangerous behaviour on a bus or train – it’s unacceptable.

Aaron McKenna

A BIZARRE INCIDENT occurred during the week, when morning commuters were thrown off their train and delayed by an hour because of a single serial fare dodger who refused to cooperate with Irish Rail staff.

Irish Rail said in a statement that the man was being pursued for a number of previous fixed penalty fines and two instances of violent behaviour towards staff. If this is the case, then clearly the individual needed to be dealt with. The Gardai were unavailable to attend at Ashtown station when the individual became uncooperative with staff, but arrangements were made for another Garda unit to attend the train at the Docklands station. The paying punters were put off and the train went on its way.

A lack of power for dealing with trouble on public transport

It was an overreaction to put everyone off the train, though I can understand too that if Irish Rail staff felt they had a particularly odious individual in their clutches they would want to soften his cough a bit with a trip to a Garda station. What this really highlights is the lack of effective powers or resources for dealing with trouble on public transport.

When he was the minister responsible for public transport, Labour’s Alan Kelly identified the key problem holding back use of the services on offer: middle-class snobbishness, he told The Irish Times, kept people off buses and trains. Two days prior, a man had dropped his trousers on a Luas and injected heroin into his groin. The presumably snobbish commuters on-board reported being horrified at the sight.

The catch-all term “antisocial behaviour” has come to be used in the official lingo to cover everything from gaggles of excited teenagers singing Crazy World on their way back from a concert at The Point, to out-and-out brawls between inebriated junkies in the middle of the working day.

A young boy sat down the DART one day and pricked his finger on a needle that had been left behind by some junkie. The boy and his family endured an agonising wait to get back test results to make sure he had not caught something life-altering or life-limiting from the needle. There isn’t a day that goes by that commuters aren’t subjected to people using drugs on public transport.

We have all been subjected to annoying or intimidating behaviour on a bus or train

Arguments, brawls, people carrying weapons, people defecating and generally soiling the place are regular occurrences. Public transport is also subject of attacks from people on the routes, and Dublin Bus in particular regularly has to curtail services in particular areas because of an uptick in missiles being thrown at vehicles.

We have all witnessed or been touched by sometimes annoying, sometimes offensive, and sometimes downright dangerous behaviour by certain passengers on public transport. The 39 bus in Dublin was my route in and out of town growing up, and it was unusual not to witness some form of trouble or selfish individuals inflicting hassle on their fellow passengers. One time I got off when someone started smoking heroin on the packed evening commute. Another time I got off after a group of lads got on at the dual carriageway before Ashtown, tried to break windows and eventually deciding to relieve themselves on the bus.

Maybe I’m a snob, but passively smoking heroin and urine flowing past me on a bus is my limit.

Protecting commuters

Luas operator Veolia and Irish Rail have both contracted private security firms to help patrol their respective routes. On the Luas, there are nine teams of two people patrolling from 10am until the service stops. Their presence helps alleviate trouble, but still the latest safety report for the Luas highlights over 2,200 cases of disorder and vandalism on the service. This is just the reported and accounted for stuff.

Commuters on other services, the bus in particular, have practically no security. An isolated driver can’t do much except radio for help and perhaps, in the odd case, drive to a Garda station and hope for the best if things get particularly bad.

Public transport can be a law-free zone in a way. At times the troublemakers are given free reign, and all the decent, fare paying folks are just stuffed in with them and advised to keep their eyes averted.

This isn’t good enough. It isn’t good enough because decent folks deserve the protection of the law. But it also isn’t good enough because public transport is one of the things we rely on to keep our economy and our society going.

If commuters are held up for an hour because revenue officers for Irish Rail either don’t have the power to deal with a rule breaker or the backup from someone with that power, then there is a knock-on effect. People are late to work or miss appointments. If people stick to using their cars because they’re too snobby to put up with piss, shit and drugs on their commute it increases congestion.

Public transport deserves its own fully empowered police force

Then there are the older and vulnerable people who are left to fend off odious characters outside of commuter hours. How many people feel trapped in their homes because of a bad experience trying to take a bus to a community centre or out to the cinema or similar? I’d say more than a few.

Public transport is an artery through which the lifeblood of society flows. As in other countries, it deserves its own fully empowered police force.

Anyone who has travelled around London knows the highly visible transport police there. You’ll meet them in stations, travelling around, and responding to incidents. They provide a real sense of security in one of the busiest transport systems in the world. Yet, there are only 2,931 officers in the transport force overall. Small numbers, as with the grand total of 18 security guards travelling on the Luas each day, can make a big difference.

A force dedicated to transport would have the flexibility to travel to trouble spots. We already see some of that, for example in an operation carried out on the Luas with Gardai and Department of Social Protection officers to hunt out people with fake or expired travel passes who are also, according to official reports, key troublemakers.

It would be nice to know that travelling around our busy cities there are patrol cars dedicated to policing the transport networks, who can respond to calls from bus drivers in difficulty. These same officers could patrol stations and help tamp down the thugs who have seen bicycle lock ups and even ticket machines removed because of constant vandalism.

Decent people deserve the chance to commute in peace, and those who have no respect for others need to know there’s a fair chance of meeting big cops with big batons the next time they decide to kick off.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman on columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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