“There have been times I’ve taken the DART in the past and had to cross over the tracks,” says Shannon Doyle, “just because there was no other way to get out of the station.”
Doyle lives in Greystones, and while the DART is the quickest way into the city, she says she rarely uses it.
She’s not certain she’ll always be able to get over the bridge that crosses the rails to get onto the platform she needs, she says.
There is always that fear that she’ll be denied access to the lifts, says Doyle. “Because I don’t always look disabled since I don’t always use my wheelchair.”
But “using a bunch of stairs isn’t something I’m capable of doing. I would be trapped”, she says.
Since 2019, Irish Rail has been switching how it manages lifts at many DART stations. Now, off-site operators control them.
A customer has to push the button at the lift to call the operator, who may then approve access to the lift.
Jane Cregan, spokesperson for Irish Rail, says that it was a response to vandalism. “We had seen high instances of antisocial behaviour, particularly along the DART line, which resulted in significant vandalism to lifts.”
It meant lifts were sometimes out of order when customers needed them, she said, and the lift-call system has led to a “marked decrease” in vandalism.
Some disability activists though say the new system is discriminatory as it creates an additional barrier for people with disabilities and other vulnerable users, in accessing public transport.
Others believe it is better than the alternative, where anyone can get on and do what they like on lifts.
Who’s Allowed Access?
Bernard Mulvany, a People Before Profit councillor and co-founder of the disability non-profit Access For All, says the system doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to.
“We’ve had calls, people have been left sitting, waiting and waiting. Sometimes they might miss their train because unfortunately there was no one there at the time,” he says.
Some who are able-bodied say service is variable too. Jack Popeley cycles to the Grand Canal Dock station a couple mornings a week, to get to his job in a coffee shop out in Killiney.
To avoid lugging his bike up the station stairs, he likes to take the lift. It’s early, though, around 6am, and sometimes the lift doesn’t open.
The operators who respond to pushing the button at the DART stations often don’t respond at that hour, he says. During the day, they’re much more responsive, he says.
“At times when I’ve had injuries, the lift hasn’t worked and I can’t carry my bike, I have crossed the tracks in order to get to the other side,” says Popeley.
Irish Rail staff have told him off for walking across the train tracks, he says, “but what are your options when you need to get to work?”
Gary Kearney, a disability activist, says he doesn’t need the lift, but he uses it to test the system. “Every time I’ve pressed the button I’ve got an answer, and I’ve done that up to quarter past eleven at night.”
“I’m invisibly disabled,” he says. “It’s not the case where they’re deciding if they’re abled or disabled. I don’t know the criteria they have, or the decision making. But, I know they make a call of the situation.”
Irish Rail get some help from a third-party contractor to operate the lift-call system, said Cregan.
“If their judgement is that there is a risk of [anti-social behaviour] or vandalism they may decline access,” said Cregan, of their criteria for letting people on.
“They are jointly located with our security CCTV monitoring team, so will be advised of issues in stations,” she said.
An Irish Rail spokesperson responded to an online query about how deaf passengers would use the auditory call system: “access is not exclusively for persons with disabilities – security agent is briefed though to be aware of customers who may not be able to respond”.
Mulvany says the system can be hit and miss and needs to be changed.
“Because, again, you have to ask. Someone has to allow you to use the lift to access the exact platform. If that person doesn’t respond, you can’t access the platform,” he says.
Says Kearney: “Leaving it as it was, it wasn’t a lift system that worked.”
“The lifts were being broken and being vandalised, and were going out of service. And they were used as toilets,” he says.
“It’s a pity that we have to have it. It’s not perfect. But in comparison to two years ago, it’s considerably better. It’s sad that they had to put a call system in, but it works,” he says.
“If they did nothing, it was gonna stay as bad as it was, with lifts being broken on a daily basis,” he says.
Saoirse Smith, a wheelchair user, says she hasn’t used the lift-call system because she’s stopped using the DART altogether, due to lift vandalism, and having to wait for help accessing the train.
“I’ve experienced many times where I’m stranded because the lift doesn’t work,” she says.
Changing the System?
Mulvany, the co-founder of Access For All, says the lift-call system has increased waiting times at stations.
“We’re always waiting, constantly waiting on someone who’s making another decision on our behalf,” he says.
Declan Meenagh, a Labour councillor who is visually impaired, said if the call system worked more quickly, he would be more satisfied with it.
“If they’re being left for five or ten minutes, that isn’t acceptable,” said Meenagh.
“What we want is for people who are setting fire to the lifts, or vandalising them, not to have access,” he says.
Mulvany says having staff at each station would be a deterrent to anti-social behaviour, instead of the lift call system.
“If they put Irish Rail staff back into the stations, they would reduce it greatly. Not eradicate it, we know there’s always going to be some,” he says.
“But there would be a huge reduction and people would feel safe and secure travelling around on public transport,” says Mulvany.
Kearney says staff members would not be a deterrent against vandalism.
“Staff at stations would be great,” he says, but “what’s one person going to do against a bunch of young fellas wrecking the place. They’re not trained in security.”
“At least with the lift call system, they can keep the lift safe,” he says.
Smith says she’d like to see security cameras to catch anti-social behaviour, rather than live operators, as “the lift should be open to whoever needs it”.
Meenagh suggests more ramps, rather than lifts, at stations. “You can’t break a ramp, it’s very accessible,” he says.
“Basically the starting point is every wheelchair user should have independent access, as if they didn’t have a wheelchair. Anytime that’s not true, is a real fundamental failure,” he says.
Doyle says she takes the bus instead of the DART, because of the uncertainty of being able to access the platform and train.
But she’d rather take the DART. “Each bus only has one spot for a wheelchair so if another wheelchair user has beat me to that spot I might be waiting a half an hour for the next bus.”
In winter, “getting caught in the cold and the rain is enough to keep me from having a social life in the city”, she says.