Drones, social media and indelible paint: How graffiti attacks on trains have stepped up

Costs to taxpayers of removing graffiti lies in millions of euro, along with trains taken out of service, causing delays and cancellations for commuters

The unusual sight of a drone hovering near the offices at Bray Dart station in Co Wicklow made Irish Rail staff suspect that something fishy was going on. Quickly they scrambled down the track to where the train carriages were stabled, but it was too late.

A team using the latest in indelible spray paint had advanced on a Dart train from both sides. Windows and exterior panels were coated in tags and, in under six minutes, the vandals were gone after being alerted by the drone operator that staff were coming. The train had become the latest to be targeted in a series of coordinated graffiti attacks.

Irish Rail says there were more than 300 such incidents, perpetrated against more than 350 carriages, over an 18-month period. Tim Gaston of the National Transport Authority told an Oireachtas committee in May that more than €2 million had been spent over the last two years removing graffiti from trains.

Irish Rail this week said the annual cost of removing graffiti is running at some €1.2 million, compared to €350,000 in 2015, and that the number of such incidents has risen since the lifting of Covid-19 travel restrictions.


One such incident in Clongriffin in north Dublin in May 2018 was seen as the start of an “unprecedented” wave of planned and significant attacks. It involved a group of at least a dozen youths who swarmed a train as it arrived at the station.

Pieces of wood were wedged in the doorways to prevent them from closing, and the group went to work, spray-painting the carriages inside and out. With the doors stuck, the train driver was unable to move on. Passengers were threatened with physical assault and told not to interfere. The group fled after gardaí were alerted, leaving shocked passengers and staff and a badly damaged train in their wake.

In Clontarf, things got worse when a driver approaching a train for the start of his shift was beaten to the ground and kicked by a group who were vandalising a train with paint.

Irish Rail acknowledges that there have always been attacks on its trains, overbridges and signal boxes. In the past, beer kegs carried as freight were a key target for theft – even from moving trains. But the latest incidents are not being perpetuated by lone operators or twosomes with cans of cheap spray paint.

“These are coordinated, planned attacks using industrial paints that cannot be wiped or washed off,” says Aidan Reid, a former Garda chief superintendent who now serves as Irish Rail’s senior security adviser. “The trains have to be taken out of service, the paint taken back to the metal and then repainted.” It is time-consuming and costly, he says.

Reid says the recent trend of vandals painting the inside of carriages has increased the cost of the clean-ups from about €3,000 per carriage to €13,000. But what concerns him and the company most is the intelligence that has been gathered about who is carrying out the attacks.

The evidence is that they are coming to Ireland specifically to target Irish Rail trains

—  Aidan Reid, Irish Rail’s senior security adviser

Over time, recognisable signatures, referred to as “monikers” or “brands”, have regularly been seen. Frequently spotted is “IOU”, a phrase associated with videos of trains and railway infrastructure being attacked across Europe.

In a Youtube video titled IOU On Tour Barcelona, a group of about six people are seen pulling the emergency switch to stop a train from moving before the spray paint comes out. In one scene, a gleaming white subway carriage entering a station is targeted and almost completely sprayed, all in less than 50 seconds.

Another video posted online titled Hit List - Europe is Complete shows a series of attacks on trains from Germany to Albania, to Malahide in north Dublin. During the Dublin segment, an Irish Rail security announcement can be heard calling on the group to “leave the station now”. The last scene is of the Dart pulling in at another station with a clearly identifiable moniker sprayed on it.

A caption on the video claims that the commuter rail systems in 41 countries have been targeted, and the video seems to capture footage of most of these.

“The evidence is that they are coming to Ireland specifically to target Irish Rail trains,” says Reid. “Our investigations show many are coming from Spain and that they have helpers in this country who provide local knowledge.”

Reid speaks of an underground network, linked through social media and YouTube videos where graffiti attacks on trains are promoted. The aim, he says, is for a spray painter to get their “brand” out there and to become recognised. Some of those involved see this as a hobby or a way into becoming a commercial street artist.

Reid says, however, the fact of the matter is that attacks on trains and public transport are a form of criminal damage. The view is echoed by District Court Judge John Brennan, who says: “That sort of hobby in this State is a very serious criminal charge.”

Efforts to bring more perpetrators of such incidents before the courts have stepped up in recent months. Irish Rail has set up patrols in conjunction with the Garda in places including Malahide, Clontarf, Bray and Longford, where trains are “stabled” overnight. The Garda has appointed a team of regional inspectors under the command of Chief Supt Darren McCarthy to try to stop the attacks.

While the Garda and Irish Rail say they are confident of significant progress in stopping this trend in the future, they are loath to reveal any details of the operation.

“Watch this space” says Irish Rail spokesman Barry Kenny.

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien is an Irish Times journalist