My mother tells a story of an elderly aunt travelling to London by train. On the return journey, late at night, she took a train for Bournemouth. The train reached her station, but she was unable to get off the train because her carriage had not reached the platform. Instead of walking forward in the train, she sat in the compartment waiting for the train to move. It did. The coaches were shunted into a siding and the aunt just sat there, and waited hours. Eventually an uncle went to look for her and found her still patiently waiting.
Many of those who travelled on British Rail would have been familiar with warning announcements that all passengers wishing to travel to Upper Puddleford, or wherever, should travel in the front four carriages. It was the passenger’s responsibility to make sure that they listened to the announcements and that they travelled in the correct part of the train so as to arrive at a platform. The aunt had to walk along the track to reach the station.
Passenger initiative is still demanded in other countries. Spending time in Paris one summer, we went to catch an RER train back to Maisons Lafitte in the evening. It was busy at the station and we watched the signs for a train to our station. Stopping stations were shown by white lights being illuminated against their names on the signs that overhung the platform. We were sure ‘Maisons Lafitte’ had a light beside it when we boarded the train. We flew out through the suburbs on a fine August evening and, as we crossed the Seine west of Sartrouville, realized that train was not stopping at our station, which went by in a blur. There were anxious moments as the next station approached and great relief as the train slowed and then stopped. It was with a great sense of embarrassment that we walked across an open platform to stand to wait for a southbound train. It had been our own fault.
Standing at Pearse Station in Dublin one afternoon in 2007, a train from Maynooth terminated at the southbound platform. The doors opened and the passengers stepped out. An announcer said that the train had terminated. Before it moved off, a member of the station staff started checking carriage by carriage that no-one remained. The train had been clearly marked as destined for Pearse; its termination had been announced; and it had been sitting at the platform for three or four minutes, unless someone was asleep, they couldn’t have failed to realize they should have got off. Halfway down the train the railwayman found a young woman in her early 20s, she had been deep in conversation with her friend on her mobile phone. The phone seemed to have been grafted to the side of her face, for she carried on talking as she was evicted from the carriage. Had the train moved off and had she been carried into one of the sidings at Grand Canal dock, I have no doubt that the young lady would have sought compensation.
It was a moment that came just as the economy began to crumble, prior to its complete disintegration and seemed to speak of the loss of a sense of responsibility and initiative.
Flying from Rwanda this afternoon, from a country where there is no welfare system, where there is a cruel burden of responsibility upon individual people, there is a sense that while Ireland’s problems are not of its people’s making, the way out of them is going to rest upon the initiative of the people – wait for assistance and the country will remain in a siding for years to come.