A Ride on the Dublin Metro

A Ride on the Dublin Metro

Which Doesn't Actually Exist. On the Underachieving Rail System in Ireland's Capital, and Its Rapidly Improving Bus Network.

// Excuse the radio silence: I've been travelling in the British Isles for the last two weeks, and my agenda was so packed that it didn't leave me time for writing posts. (Really packed: as in, running down platforms, often making my connection with seconds to spare.) The good news is, I was riding buses, trams, and trains, and taking notes along the way, so there will be lots of fodder for Straphanger dispatches in the weeks to come.

I'll start with Dublin. My third time. Each visit has been like touching down in an entirely different city. The first time was the early 1980s: I was but a nipper, and Ireland felt forlorn, poor, and menacing to my impressionable teenaged self. The names of hunger strikers daubed on brick walls, lots of in-your-face poverty, a sense of being in a forlorn but soulful backwater; looking back, I see it through a scrim of what looks like coal dust. (A highlight was talking my parents in letting me go alone to a screening of Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits. I was walked to an assigned seat by an usher, and the men around me never stopped lighting cigarettes—maybe the scrim I recall was in fact the smoke-fugged projector beam.) The second time was on a book tour, in 2007, I think: full Celtic Tiger phase, everyone complaining about rising housing prices, a feeling of prosperity in the air, lots of Polish workers in the restaurants and hotels. Everything felt shiny, fast-paced, and over-priced.

The tramway network of Dublin—ca. 1923. Rail options have much diminished since then.

Now, in 2024, after the bursting of the property bubble and a massive crash—unemployment rose to 14% by 2011—Ireland feels like a place that's righted itself, and got its act together. Particularly in relation to the UK, which is still reeling from Brexit and fourteen years of Conservative mismanagement; there is much Schadenfreude in Ireland about Leaver Brits being forced to wait in long queues at Continental airports, while euro-carrying Irish waltz through Customs. (Dublin is also full of Brazilians—there are loads of shops selling farofa and feijoada—which apparently has something to do with the fact that Brazilian students' visas allow them to work while they're studying.)

All right, enough preamble! I know you've come here for transportation, not local colour. (If you're in any doubt, though, the local colour is a deep forest green.)

The transfer from airport to city centre is one of the first impressions you get of a city, and Dublin doesn't shine in this area. After passing through Customs (no line-up, one question, one stamp on my passport) and collecting my bag, I rode an escalator down to where public transportation was waiting. No rail: it's all by bus. Many cities offer a choice of municipal buses (slow, many stops, but cheap) and express coaches, which are often privately operated. I opened my Transit app (the Montreal-made transit planner, which I wrote about in this post, is my go-to, and worked a treat in Dublin). It listed some numbered buses that would take me to my destination. I assumed I would be boarding a municipal bus, but a woman in a fluorescent Transport for Ireland (TfI) smock directed me to the "Aircoach." (Unlike Transport for London and Paris's RATP, TfI doesn't actually operate transit services; it contracts with private operators and Córas Iompair Éireann, "Irish Transport System," which runs Dublin Bus and Irish Rail.)

I walked down the platform, where a put-upon young woman in a minuscule booth struggled to connect her terminal to the internet to issue me a ticket. About ten minutes later, I loaded my bag into the underbelly of a Greyhound-style bus. Turns out the airport-city centre run is served by buses operated by Aircoach or Dublin Express—private operators that for some reason appear as numbered (in this case, 700 or 784) routes. The numbers led me to expect a TfI-liveried municipal vehicle, rather than a standard issue inter-city bus. It cost €8; cheap, as things go, for an airport transfer, but it puttered along in mixed traffic for much of the forty-minute run.

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So, my first impression confirmed the report issued by Greenpeace in 2023, which ranked Dublin dead last of 30 capital cities in the E.U. for public transportation. But things looked up after I checked into my hotel, which had a balcony overlooking St. Stephen's Green in the heart of the city. It happened to adjoin the central stop of Luas, the city's tram system. There are two lines, the Green and the Red, with 67 stops on 43 kilometers of track, running modern, low-floor Alstom Citadis trams. Dublin was once a city of tramways—many of them double-decker—but the last one ran in 1949. The modern iteration, launched in 2004, runs along city streets and an old elevated heavy-rail alignment (Green line), and from Dublin's Northside to the southwestern suburbs of Tallaght and Saggart (Red line). Luas is the Irish word for "speed," which is definitely a misnomer: the trams get tangled up in traffic a lot in the city center, and rarely reach their maximum of 70 km/h.

Keep in mind that Dublin is a capital city with a metro population of 1.28 million. (TfI actually serves "Greater Dublin," with 2.12 million—which is 42 percent of the Republic of Ireland's population.) In other words, it's a fair-sized European capital, which might lead you to expect a metro system. Nuh-uh. (Much smaller cities in Europe can boast metros: I wrote about Lausanne, population 139,000, and Brescia, pop. 194,000 in this post, "Small Cities, Big Transit.")

The DART train at Pearse Station: essentially an S-Bahn, electrified and running on legacy heavy rail lines

What Dublin has, apart from the trams, is the DART, the Dublin Area Rapid Transit system. These are heavy-duty trains that run aboveground, on the city's legacy heavy-rail network, and stop at major railway stations Connolly and Tara Street. I rode from Pearse St. to the spur that leads to Howth, a seaside-resort perfect for satisfying all your fish-n-chips needs. The DART is basically an S-Bahn, like Berlin's elevated alternative to the U-Bahn; the only thing that distinguishes it from the five-line "Commuter" service, which runs diesel trains, is its frequency, and the fact that it's electrified.

(There are ambitious plans to improve the rail network, including a 19-kilometer metro known as MetroLink, which would serve the airport; but construction hasn't started yet, and trains wouldn't run until the mid-2030s. In my experience, on that timeline, anything can happen.)

So, not much rail for a city this size—and, as I said, no metro at all. Which means that I'd be riding the buses. The good news: the bus system, which replaced the historic tram network, has recently undergone a massive improvement. The man behind the upgrade is none other than Jarrett Walker, of Portland, Oregon, whose smart thinking about transit is contained in his recently re-published book Human Transit (which I reviewed here).

So, Greenpeace will need to re-do it's ranking: Dublin's rail transit might indeed be lacking, especially for a capital city of its size and stature, but great things are planned for the bus system, and indeed, service is already improving. Watch this space: I'll be sharing my experiences from the top-level, front seats of the double-deckers in my next dispatch.

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