Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Riding the rails (here and there)

On Monday, I took the commuter rail to Providence. It’s a trip I’ve made many times to visit my old and very dear friend Marie. Yesterday’s trip, like my recent visit to Ireland, was bittersweet. The occasion was the annual luncheon of a non-profit where Marie had worked for many years. Marie died in April, and the luncheon included a tribute to her.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I was on the local commuter rail this week, and – as is my general experience with it – it was clean enough, comfortable enough, and reliable enough.

Sure, I wish the leatherette seats weren’t that hideous Barney-purple color.

Other than that, count me as a satisfied customer.

For my trip to Providence, I purchased my ticket from a human being.

This was at Back Bay station where I don’t recall seeing a ticket machine. (At North Station, although I generally buy my ticket form a human being, there is a machine option.)

Anyway, last week, my train trips were in Ireland, on Eirann Iarnrod, Ireland’s AMTRAK equivalent.

While I was a bit nostalgic for the beat-up old Ireland trains I’ve used over the years, with their dirty orange engines and rackety passenger cars, it’s easy to be nostalgic when you don’t have to deal with something on a regular basis. The new Irish trains are sleek, modern, techie, and clean. And, unlike on Boston’s local commuter rail, where humans dispense tickets, collect tickets, announce stations, and (sort of) help you off, in Ireland, you barely come in contact with a human being.

Not that having human beings on the old Eirann Iarnrod were an unalloyed benefit.

On one Ireland visit, my husband and I took the train from Dublin to Enniscorthy.

We figured early on that the train was too long for most of the pokey stations it was stopping at, and our hunch was that Enniscorthy would have pokey station, too.

Which meant that passengers had to figure out which car was gong to be the magic one that you needed to be on in order to get yourself off on the actual platform, as opposed to, say, jumping off onto the tracks.

Unfortunately, the conductors seemed to have made themselves scarce, and the barman couldn’t tell us what car we needed to be in, either. We eventually found a couple of old ladies who knew what car you needed to be on to get off the train in Enniscorthy, so all we had to do was mind the gap, rather than, say, jump off onto the tracks.

Ah, the good old days.

No conductors on Eirann Iarnrod these days.

Once your train gets called, you slip you ticket into a machine that gains you access to the platform. And hang onto that ticket, as in some stations, you need to use it to get out.

On the train itself, the only human being you’ll see is the kid manning the tea cart. This will no doubt be robotized as some point in the not so distant…

Instead of humans, you get canned announcements – charmingly in both Irish and English – that all end with mind the gap and/or keep your feet off the seats.

As for buying the ticket, Eirann Iarnrod really, really, really wants you to buy it online. So much so that the charge will be nearly doubled if you actually have the nerve to go to the station and buy it there – even if you go to the station and use a ticket-dispensing machine, as opposed to queuing up to buy your ticket from an actual human. To add insult to injury, if you want a reserved seat – with your name electronically displayed over the seat – it’s free on line, but five euros offline.

Curiously, I was able to buy our tickets from Galway to Dublin (and reserve our seats) online but, when I went to buy our tickets from Dublin to Limerick, my credit cards were all rejected. (Pay Pal, unfortunately, is not yet up and running.)

So, grrr, grrr, grrr, a ticket that should have cost 30 Euros cost 53 Euros.

I’m sure that there must be some old rural Irish geezer with no Internet access workaround, so that old rural Irish geezers with no Internet access don’t get gouged. At least I hope there is.

But it was interesting to see that Ireland’s railroad is so much more technically advanced than what we have locally (or on AMTRAK, which I also take on occasion). And so avidly squeezing humans out of the travel equation.

I guess in some respects we’re just a public transpo and technology outback…

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