Earlier this month I had occasion to step into the Dublin Bus central ticket office on O’Connell Street. The cheery room of new lino, pine and queues is housed in a slab of concrete and dingy windows festooned with the arms of the four provinces and the Dublin Bus logo. I could almost use the building a metaphor for the state of Irish public transport – decrepit and inefficient except for a fantastic veneer of moments where it looks sexy and modern.
Many people think ticket inspectors are a myth propagated by the Department of Transport to scare us straight. I can bust this myth. In my four years of daily bus travel in and out and around Dublin, I’ve had my ticket checked often enough to persuade me never to dodge a fare – probably once or twice a year.
The typical Dublin Bus ticket inspection takes place on a long, straight stretch of Quality Bus Corridor. With the 39 and 39a, this means somewhere along the Navan road or the N3. Inspectors join inbound buses in Blanchardstown village and outbound services near the Garda station in Cabra. The silly hat appears over the stairwell, and the rest of the CIE man follows three seconds later, the team positioning themselves expertly to block your flight. You don’t hear anything like “tickets please”. Everyone knows the score. Earphones drop and dangle from collars. Vacant stares gain a subject. Conversations stop and the inspectors break the silence in the way school principals do when they interrupt a class to talk to your teacher.
Usually I get to sit pretty and watch the drama as some lad down the back of the bus struggles out a false address. Not this time. After a quick root in my wallet, I came to the realisation that my Travelcard wasn’t in it. It was on my desk at home, tucked into the plastic slip with last month’s ticket. Three legally travelling passengers between me and the hat. Two. One.
The last time this happened, the inspector told me he appreciated my honesty and the fact that I didn’t shout at him. “It’s a stupid system,” he told me, “But I have to enforce it.”
This time it was much the same – I just didn’t get as chatty with my prosecutor. “I don’t have my Travelcard,” I said. He asked for my student card, then my name and address. I replied vacantly, staring straight ahead. I was probably being a bit rude with that, but the way they stand over you, blocking you into your seat is disconcerting.
His job done, he issued me with a discontinued Travel90 ticket and confiscated my 30 day Student Rambler. The inspectors got off the bus at Blanchardstown Village with me. They climbed into a black hatchback car driven by another CIE goon wearing a tie with trains on it. I went into my barber to complain about it while they sheared me.
So two days later I escaaped the jaws of a biting easterly wind and came to claim back my ticket. And I wasn’t alone when I got there; two others were ahead of me in the getting-your-travelcard-back queue.
I found this weird. “There’s three of us here now,” I said, “How often does this happen?”
The reply came laced with officious pride.
“We get forty in a day.”
I took my ticket and my leave, still quite surprised at the number. Inspections are rare enough that many people claim never to have encountered a ticket inspector on a Dublin bus. They’re certainly nowhere near as frequent as those on the Munich U-Bahns, where I saw a ticket check about once a week. This makes me think the number of students getting smoked for not carrying their Travelcards must represent a huge chunk of those being caught for fare evasion.
Dublin Bus doesn’t appear to release statistics for fare-dodging — probably because they don’t even collect them centrally — The best I can do is guess. From what I hear, fare dodging by people who actually haven’t paid for their ticket is rife across Dublin’s public transport. I imagine inspectors don’t make the distinction between students without cards and those who haven’t paid a fare, because they write up a slip either way. If inspector productivity is measured by the number of tickets issued, then this is a handy number for them.
Twelve days remained on my bus ticket. I had been in and out of town eighteen times without needing that bloody Travelcard once. I didn’t miss it once. It ostensibly has three functions, of which showing Dublin Bus inspectors you’re truly a student is just one.
As a discount card, it’s utterly useless. The discounts are anything but exclusive. I’ve used my DIT card for several without a problem, but that’s hardly surprising when I can get student bus tickets without showing the Travelcard. Besides, if I had money to burn on nasty Costa coffees or overpriced boxers in Topshop, I’d be unlikely to bother embarrassing myself in front of my posh mates looking for a discount. I have no plans to travel anywhere which might require a visit to the Tropical Medical Bureau, and I haven’t been in an Xtra-vison since I was fourteen.
Using the Travelcard as a Leap card would cost me nearly two euro more every day (traveling return for more than 13 stages x2 on a Leap card is 4.80; one day on a student Ramber 30 day costs 2.87), so for that it’s also useless. I understand they’re bringing in student rates for the Leap card, but then again, it’s taken millions of euro and nearly a decade to get this far. For now, I’m stuck with a card that conflicts with my Smart Cards when I try to scan them and forces me to block the door of the bus as I dig the ticket out of my wallet.
So, on an everyday basis the Student Travelcard is useless, and even causes inconvenience. It’s hardly surprising that so many students leave it at home. That’s public transport in Ireland for you — a service that gets you from A to B as a by-product of creating inconvenience.