Michael Fitzgerald pauses most days at the level crossing near Ashtown station while trains chug on by.
He may be on a bike or in his car, headed to basketball practice in Castleknock or to visit family in Coolmine, he says. From his home in Finglas, Ashtown Road is the most convenient route, despite the wait.
On a recent Thursday, after about four minutes, level-crossing operator Ryan McFadden emerges from a cabin a few metres away, unlocks one gate and carries it across the road, latching it to block the train line.
He heaves the second gate across, clearing the way for Fitzgerald and others.
Every day, this Ashtown Road level crossing is closed for an hour, at an average of six minutes each time, according to a spokesperson for Irish Rail.
Draft plans for the DART+ West show upgrades to the Connolly-to-Maynooth commuter line, with the line electrified and the number of hourly trains increased from 7 to 15. Trains could carry 13,750 passengers an hour in each direction, up from 4,500.
It’s a response to overcrowding on commuter trains, and should help get people out of private cars and cut greenhouse gas emissions, according to Irish Rail.
More trains would mean more crossing closures, and drivers, cyclists and pedestrians waiting much longer at the four crossings along the Maynooth line – including the crossing at Ashtown.
Irish Rail’s preferred solution at Ashtown is to put a tunnel under the train line and nearby canal so that bikes, cars and boats can flow freely. There would be a footbridge and lift for pedestrians.
Tunnelling underground, though, isn’t as simple as is sometimes suggested. In this case, Ashtown Stables, directly beside the rail line, would have to be acquired by compulsory purchase order, leaving some casting around for another option.
Those who use the stables worry about losing an amenity. It would be a much longer drive for Rachael Byrne to take her daughter Isabelle to a stables from home in Phibsboro to Kildare or north Dublin.
“If you don’t have that nearby, you’re not going to have those opportunities,” says Byrne, later on the phone.
At the level crossing, Fitzgerald shouts over the train galloping past: “I think it will be good to have a DART – as well for the emissions and everything else as well – and the noise.”
Open and Shut
McFadden, the level-crossing operator, says he is out moving the crossing gates every five minutes from 5pm to 8pm.
A lot of trips from the cabin to the crossing. “Someone said it was 160 a day, but I’ve been too afraid to count,” he says, as he hops out of the cabin again, to heave the gates shut for another train.
For Irish Rail to increase the number of commuters travelling along the line, it has to remove all level crossings from the line, says a spokesperson.
Otherwise, at the Ashtown crossing for example, the gates would have to be closed all the time, says a preliminary options report for the DART+ West.
But pedestrians crossing the footbridge above the Ashtown level crossing may look down and spot, on the other side of the railway line, the edge of a horse-riding arena shielded by trees.
Kevin and Chris Reid were sweeping up the yard at Ashtown Stables on Thursday as trains rush past.
Behind stable doors, horses snort and tuck into piles of hay. Fifteen kids had spent the day at pony camp, learning to canter, jump and care for their horses.
“I did jumping and trotting,” said Isabelle Bryne, 9, over the phone. “I like cantering after the jump because it was fun and the pony kept on doing a big jump. It feels fun and high.”
The kids all tacked their own horses, and the older ones learned bareback riding, says Kevin Reid. “It’s all for fun, no competitions.”
Kevin says that most of the horse riders are women and girls. “Because we’re surrounded by soccer pitches and a rugby pitch, and they’re deciding to take our own sport that’s predominantly girls.”
“They look forward to it every single week. It’s the highlight of the week, and if this goes there’s nowhere around,” he says.
Isabelle says she’d miss the centre if it closed. “I would miss my favourite horse, and the jumping.”
Removing the stables could lead to more neglected wild horses in the area, says Seamas McGrattan, a Sinn Féin councillor. “Kids in Finglas and Cabra don’t have resources to go out to Kildare.”
Declan Meenagh, a Labour councillor, says that urban horse culture should be protected. “I think that we have something that’s unique.”
Fitzgerald, at the level crossing, says, “Getting rid of rural fixtures like the stables isn’t so good, It’s just slowly getting more and more built up.”
“But you know, that’s going to happen. We still have the playing fields here. It’s good and bad,” he says.
Commuters and Communities
Like other traffic changes in recent times, some residents say they see this in the context of balancing how to move people through neighbourhoods and respecting those neighbourhoods and amenities.
Pat Allison, a representative of the Navan Road Community Council, says she welcomes the electrification of the railway line.
But “it is only to get commuters through”, she says, “there is no planning gain for this community”.
The stables is an important amenity for the local area and many kids use it locally, she says, so the tunnel should be moved. “I think they need to come up with a different place for that to cross.”
Irish Rail looked at 12 options for how to manage the knock-on effects of more trains – including leaving the level crossing as is, and getting rid of the crossing there altogether and diverting all the traffic.
It looked at different places where they might put in a new bridge to lift the road over the rail line, or a tunnel to go under.
“Option 2”, which involves “re-routing Ashtown Road along its old alignment (pre-Royal Canal) on Mill Lane and passing under both the railway and the Royal Canal”, came out on top.
Eleanor and Jack Molloy are on an early evening stroll from their house in Ashington, waiting at the level crossing.
Going underground makes sense, says Eleanor. “Because traffic builds up there very quickly right? Especially either side.”
Eleanor says her daughter used to use the stables. “The space there isn’t very big anyway. I was just saying to her, would they not relocate and get a bigger space?”
Says Byrne, who brings her daughter to the stables: “This commuter line is being set up to drive through as quickly as we can take out all of these amenities for us that are living in the city.”
“The idea must be that we’re supposed to move because that seems to be the message,” she says.
Alternative options should be brought to Ashtown Stables, he says. “They need to talk to the stables and see can they rearrange, or can they find another location for them. I think they need to look again and see can they build the tunnel somewhere else?”
“I think they do need the tunnel,” says Meenagh, the Labour councillor. “People need to go to work.”
But he also thinks the consultation is running at a bad time, when many people are on holidays, he says. “I think if they extend it to the end of September.”
The DART+ West is currently open for its second round of public consultation, until 8 September.
Irish Rail’s current timeline is for construction to begin in 2023 and end in 2025.