2608 in the original orange and black colour scheme on a bank holiday relief train at Gorey, May 2002. Though by this stage the set had lost its 'Arrow' branding.
Now approaching 30 years in service, Iarnród Éireann's 2600 class railcars have been working away without fuss since they entered traffic in May 1994. The first of the CIE's second generation diesel railcars, the units have worked to just about every part of the IÉ passenger network and have even made it as far as Belfast on the Northern Ireland Railways network. Oft unsung, let's take a look at the career of these surefooted railcars over the past few decades.
Trendsetting railcars from Japan
The early 1990s saw a IR£19.5 million order for 17 railcars placed with the Tokyu Car Corporation of Yokohama, Japan. This was quite groundbreaking on a number of fronts; not only was it the first Irish order placed with an Asian firm (an order which would set a trend going forward), it was also the first new diesel railcar order since the 1950s. The previous 2600 class, built by AEC, had been converted to loco-operated push-pull sets in the 1970s which in turn were withdrawn by the late 1980s. As much, they were very much a novelty on a railway that was otherwise dominated by locomotive hauled trains (bar the Electric Multiple Unit-operated DART service, of course). Now of course, the inverse applies, and the 2600s were very much the spark that ignited the gradual railcarisation of the Iarnród Éireann network, an the improvements in timetable efficiency that came with it.
All seventeen cars arrived in Dublin's North Wall on the MV Envoyager on 14th February 1994. This allowed IÉ to make up 8 2 car sets, with one spare vehicle. It was not long before trials were underway, the first of which took place in March 1994, with the first units in passenger service that May (quite a speedy introduction to traffic compared to more recent orders). Though delivered with the old 'IR' point logo logos, by the time they entered traffic they sported the then-new IÉ 'plug and socket' logo. The by-now 30 year old colour palette of orange and black was given a smart uplift complete with 'Arrow' branding on the sides. Perhaps a nod to the established success of the DART brand, a brand new 'Arrow' commuter service was launched between Kildare and Dublin Heuston, with stations opened/re-opened at locations such as Cherry Orchard and Clondalkin. The class also use on an early-morning Athlone service for a period though this later reverted to locomotive haulage. May 1995 saw a 2 car set allocated to work the Cork to Cobh commuter service, allowing an expansion of the timetable and slight improvement in journey times too. They have held sway on this route ever since. In order to rotate the Cork-based set for maintenance, the class was used on a Sundays Only working from Cork to Dublin, with empty sets coming down on a Saturday.
Railcars that got to the four provinces
While commuter work was the class's mainstay, their early years also saw the 2600s deployed on Sunday-Only auxiliary workings, bringing them to otherwise unusual pastures such as Galway, and, for a time, Waterford. In those days, suburban services were quite limited on Sundays which meant that the railcars were freed up. For a brief period, they even found themselves wandering into Northern Ireland Railways territory on Belfast workings, although this didn't last long and the units were subsequently restricted from cross-border trips due to their couplings making them difficult to rescue were they to fail on NIR metals.
The changing Irish railway of the 2000s.
2606 at Gorey in the first version of the 'Commuter' livery, which didn't have the full yellow front. May 2002.
The early 2000s saw the introduction of a new 'Commuter' livery on the class, consisting of a lime green and dark blue, separated by a white band. These colours wrapped around the front of the first few sets finished, but later repaints sported a full yellow front instead.
2601 at Malahide on a service from Drogheda, formed by an 8-car set. Note it sports the mainstream Commuter livery with full yellow front. 21st April 2006.
During the mid-2000s eight-car 2600 class workings started to appear on northern commuter workings to Drogheda. Around 2005 it was permitted for the class to operate in 'mixed' sets with the 2800 class, which had been delivered in 2000 from Tokyu and were similar but not entirely identical to the 2600s. Mixed workings included the Gorey and Longford commuter runs. With the 2800s taking over Rosslare line Intercity duties from late 2005, the interoperability of the Tokyu classes meant that 2600s too occasionally found themselves on these long distance workings down the former Dublin & South Eastern, tagging along with 2800 sets. The withdrawl of the Cravens carriages from service in December 2006 saw a 2600 class outbased at Ballina to work the shuttle between there and Manulla Junction. They were later superceded by 2700, and, in time, 2800 class sets on this branch.
Around this time, the 'spare' 2600 car, No.2609, was sent to Kilmarnock for overhaul and paired up with the spare 2700 car. Known as the 'hybrid' set, this pairing was mostly deployed in the Cork area and was taken out of use when the 2700 fleet was sidelined in the early 2010s. This was the only in-service mixing of 2600s with the Spanish-built 2700s; while mixed test workings occurred the two classes were never otherwise cleared to pair up in normal operation. The early 2010s also saw the units repainted in a green and silver livery not dissimilar to that carried by the InterCity Railcar fleet, with the 'commuter' brand gradually disappearing.
The great Munster migration
Two sets in the current silver livery are seen in the bay platforms at Kent Station, Cork, June 2022.
The gradual deployment of more 29000 and later 22000 class into service meant that the 2600s were freed up from their Dublin-based duties, allowing the entire class to permanently migrate to Cork. Maintenance now being allocated to Limerick rather than Drogheda. Trips to Dublin are now quite rare bar visits to Inchicore for heavier maintenance and overhaul work. Strange to think, considering they were once part and parcel of the Dublin suburban network. They are now a staple of the Cork to Cobh, Cork to Midleton and Cork to Mallow commuter routes, along with a Sundays Only working from Cork to Tralee and back. As mentioned, they do operate empty to Limerick for maintenance and while it's not unknown for them to work the odd passenger turn out of Limerick, it's not particularly common (their younger sisters, the 2800 class, tend to dominate Limerick local workings along with the 22000 class ICR units). As such, our "Suir Lee Knot" railtour on 15th April 2023 will be a now rare excursion for the class out of the Cork region into Waterford, a location they were never particularly associated with (bar a few Sunday Only workings in their early days) compared to other railcar and locomotive classes. A further change came in late 2022, when 2613+2610 became the first of the class to have their end gangways removed.
Rarely in the limelight, the 2600s have been superb workhorses for the Irish Rail system over the past few decades and it's high time they got their day in the limelight. Do join us if you can, while they have life in them yet, future rolling stock trends suggest that now is time to enjoy this versatile little fleet while you can.