One summer’s evening a couple of years ago, there was an hour and a half to pass before a meeting at Seir Kieran in Co Offaly. Sitting some eight miles south in Roscrea at 5.30 pm the options for something to do were not plentiful.
Driving to the town’s beautiful Nineteenth Century railway station, I took some pictures with my phone before returning to the car. The station has all the offices one would expect of a proper railway station. It was not hard to stand on the platform and imagine the bustle of the place, a clerk dispensing tickets to passengers bound for Linerick or Dublin; a porter pulling a trolley piled high with trunks, a smart station master overseeing all the life of the station.
A couple of minutes after I had returned to my car, there was a tap on the car window. “Would you like to see the signal box?” asked the man.
The signal box was a delight, but with just two up and two down trains a day, the work was not overly exciting. I asked the signalman about the future of the line which runs from Ballybrophy on the Dublin to Cork mainline through Roscrea, Cloughjordan, Nenagh, Birdhill, and Castleconnell, before reaching Limerick. A survey had shown that the four trains each day carried an average of sixteen passengers each – and that the cost per passenger to Irish Rail ran into hundreds of Euro.
“I joined CIE more than forty years ago,” the signalman replied, “and I was told this line had no future then. It’s still going.”
The 1922 edition of Bradshaw’s Railway Guide suggests that the realities of railway life in Roscrea have not changed for a century. In 1922, there were just three trains a day in each direction on the line from Ballybrophy to Limerick and three trains on the branchline to Birr that was open at the time. My imaginings of a thriving station with regular departures to Dublin were not borne out by the printed evidence. Perhaps there was neither the population nor the wealth to sustain such services.
The line through Roscrea is not the only one through Co Tipperary that is neither viable nor sensible. The line from Waterford to Limerick Junction has a number of passengers similar to that of the Ballybrophy to Limerick line and has two services a day in each direction. The cost per passenger far exceeds the ticket revenues.
What is it about railways, even railways that will never be viable, that compels their retention? Is it about beauty and order? Or is it that politicians are little boys at heat?