Summer 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of the Iarnród Éireann 29000 (originally 2900) class diesel railcar units in service. Currently the backbone of the commuter services in and out of Dublin’s Connolly station, the class has carried out their work largely unsung and without fuss for the past two decades. As such, it seems appropriate to take a look at the history of the class over the preceding twenty years, and while not precisely Irish railtour regulars, they’ve certainly got around to more places than you might expect, as we shall see.
A striking new look for Irish railways
Ordered in 2000, the 2900 class (as they were initially known) was built by CAF (Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles) in Zaragoza in Spain, the first Irish vehicles to be supplied by the manufacturer. Since then, Northern Ireland Railways ordered their 3000 and later 4000 class DMUs from CAF, with Iarnród Éireann also choosing them to build the mkIV loco-hauled carriages. So the 2900s were very much trendsetters in that regard. Indeed, over in Great Britain CAF has since supplied vehicles such as the Class 195 and mk5 coaching stock. As fixed four-car units, the 2900s were quite a departure from previous railcar purchases by IÉ, which had primarily consisted of two-car units. Visually, they were quite a striking departure from the earlier classes too, featuring a wide window cab front rather than two narrow windows separated by a gangway as was the case on the Tokyu and Alstom units. They were delivered in the then-new green and dark blue ‘Commuter’ livery. While this had been debuted on some 2600 class sets the year prior, these were the first domestic (as opposed to Enterprise) class to be delivered in anything other than orange/black since the early 1960s, the DART-branded electric stock excepted.
2945 brings up the rear of the 10:55 departure to Longford at Connolly, July 2004. The green & blue commuter livery is quite a contrast to the more traditional orange & black liveried 2800 class set seen in the background. Táilte Tours Collection.
Delivered to North Wall in February 2002, the 2900s soon found their way to Limerick for commissioning trials (a practice that would later be repeated with the mkIV stock). June of that year saw the first units enter service on the northern commuter service out of Dublin, a service they’ve remained the backbone of over the past two decades. This allowed the mkIII push-pull sets to be released from the commuter service and take up Intercity duties out of Heuston station. In conjunction with their arrival, a new railcar depot was built at Drogheda to serve Dublin’s now-expanded railcar fleet.
The following years would see them become part and parcel of non-electrified parts of the Dublin commuter network, including the services from Maynooth and Longford. The opening of the new Docklands station in 2007 saw the units take up a new service from there to Clonsilla, with 2010 seeing this extended to the newly-reopened line to Dunboyne and M3 Parkway. The migration of the older 2600/2700/2800 class railcars to Cork and Limerick saw the 29000s gradually takeover commuter services on the scenic south eastern line to Gorey as well. Te 29000s also operated the Dublin Heuston to Kildare commuter service from the mid-2000s. They have since been displaced by the 22000 class on this operation, which itself has been extended through to Portlaoise. Such is the versiatility of the units, that they've even taken over from locomotives on DART EMU transfer duties from Fairview to Inchicore and Drogheda.
The Dublin commuter railcar that's toured Ireland
While primarily intended for commuter traffic, the 2900s were no strangers to mainline duties in their early days. For instance, they took over the Sundays Only 15:00 Dublin to Belfast working and its return from the 201-operated mkIII push-pull sets. Sunday Only workings also saw the class visit locations such as Limerick and Galway. 2005 also saw them find their way onto some Dublin-Rosslare links, with them taking over full-time from April until the winter timetable change when they gave way to 2800s. That timetable change also saw them take over the Intercity workings to Sligo, a duty they held until the entry to traffic of the InterCity Railcar/22000 class fleet in late 2007. Even then, they continued to work a Sunday Only link on the Sligo line into the late 2010s. Even today, they still operate the morning Rosslare to Dundalk service, one of the longest in the country, and a peak hour service back to Wexford. They often substitute for 22000 class units on Rosslare-Dublin Intercity links too. The CAF units also see use on Dublin-Belfast workings when the booked Enterprise sets require cover. The 29000 class has also visited some more offbeat routes on railtour and ECS workings, as we shall see later in this article.
An Irish railcar so successful, they ordered more
The first of the second batch, set 21, brings a Dublin to Rosslare Europort service into Gorey during its first week of service, November 2005. Táilte Tours Collection.
Such was the success of the initial 20 four-car sets that an order was later placed for an additional 9 four-car sets, these entering traffic in late 2005. This posed a numbering problem, the existing cars were numbered 2901 up to 2980 and the additional 36 cars would push this well out of the sequence. The solution was to change the numbering from four to five digits and base it around set numbers rather than individual car numbers, not something seen on IÉ before. For example, the first four-car set, consisting of vehicles numbered 2901+2902+2903 +2904, became 29101+29201+29301+29401, the 20th set changing from 2977+2978+2979+2980 to 29120+29220+29320+29420, etc. The 9 additional sets adopted the new numbering system from the start, with the first of these being numbered 29121+29221+29321+29421, etc. This numbering style would also be adopted for the later 22000 class sets.
Liveries of the Irish Rail 29000 class
The two tone green livery, sported by set 23 at Dundalk, June 2023. Táilte Tours Collection.
As mentioned, the 2900/29000 class railcar sets initially carried the ‘Commuter’ livery of green and dark blue. The 2010s saw the introduction of a new two-tone green livery, after various colour schemes were tested on the withdrawn mkIII ‘Executive’ saloon No.7161 at Inchicore. Rather than simply repaint the units for the sake of it; the policy was to only repaint them into the new livery as they became due, with the original livery lasting on some units all the into the summer of 2022, when the final remaining units had the new livery applied not via paint, but via vinyl wraps. This work was carried out in Connolly Valeting Plant rather than Inchicore. The 2010s also saw new upholstery started to be rolled out in some units.
Not common on Irish railtours, but have gone beyond the beaten track
Despite being only introduced in the 2000s, they have managed to visit some lines no longer open for traffic. On the Northern Ireland Railways network, they have been cleared over the mothballed Lisburn to Antrim branch line; this is to allow an ‘escape route’ from Belfast should the mainline be closed between there and Lisburn (this contingency has also seen them cleared from Belfast to Antrim via the former NCC route through Bleech Green). They have also traversed the now-closed ‘South Wexford’ line from Rosslare Strand to Waterford. Their only known passenger working here was a railtour operated by the Irish Railway Record Society before the closure of the line in the summer of 2010 (the last railtour to use the route). In addition, they have also operated over the line on occasions when the main Dublin-Rosslare has been cut off at the north end and the South Wexford route was the only way to rotate stock for maintenance.
While often overlooked by enthusiasts, the 2900/29000 class has delivered sterling service to Iarnród Éireann and its passengers over the past two decades and while mainly associated with Dublin Connolly workings, has made appearances in more places than one might expect. They’ve also performed with great reliability on services well outside their design remit, including long-distance Intercity workings and Enterprise substitutions. They’ve certainly proved to have been a great buy and with new hybrid trains on the horizon, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for this most dependable class. As mentioned, they haven’t put in many appearances on Irish railtours so far but time will tell if that remains the case.