Summary of Far North Line Station Visits - April & May 2008
These visits were carried out during daylight hours by four volunteers from Friends of the Far North Line (FoFNL). It was therefore impossible to determine whether lighting actually was (rather than appeared to be) adequate, and more importantly, whether it was working. With long summer evenings beckoning it is unlikely that this could be rectified within the next four or five months. Inevitably different volunteers noticed different things: the absence of any note that, for example, Beauly has a litter bin should not be taken to imply that there isn't one. Volunteers were given a schedule with questions, but the early inspections showed useful things (eg litter bins, steps) which had not been foreseen when drawing up the schedule. If the exercise is repeated the schedule will be revised to incorporate lessons learned.
With these limitations the inspections demonstrated a generally high level of maintenance and upkeep by Network Rail (NR) and First ScotRail (FSR). Some of the faults identified are temporary, and may no longer exist (eg gravel on the DOWN path at Muir of Ord), but should nevertheless be checked. Others, still temporary but longer-lasting (eg track bed litter at Brora), are persistent and need more rigorous efforts to eliminate them. Others still are shortcomings in provision. These, while not technically being up to modern station standards, are harder to fault. Platform surfaces at the very small stations are generally of grit or gravel. This surface is cheap and requires no maintenance, and is satisfactory for the bulk of passengers. Anyone in a wheelchair, however (particularly a self-propelled one) would have some difficulty. But how likely is it that a wheelchair-bound passenger would actually use such a station? In many cases the vertical stepping distance is likely to be too high for the chair ramp provided on trains to allow safe usage. These are questions beyond the competence of FoFNL to judge, but the industry and Transport Scotland (TS) should be aware of them.
The provision of facilities generally is sensible. At remote locations the provision of a working Help button is vital, and these are present (if not all working) at most stations. However it would be safer if there were two Help buttons where there are two platforms - unnecessary crossing of the line is not good practice especially if the help sought suggests that the train is approaching. At Forsinard it would be impossible safely to return to the UP platform. Current operation means that trains do not in fact pass at the station itself, but current operation may not last for ever and in future it may be that trains pass at the station. Shelter provision is good, and it will be interesting to see how the recently-installed small shelters stand up to weather and vandalism at those stations (eg Brora) where it is likely to be encountered. It is noteworthy that Brora has a large amount of "dropped" litter on the track bed (as distinct from toilet waste, which can be found at many stations), and no Help button.
Toilets are rarely provided except at the larger stations. The toilets at Thurso were closed despite a clear notice indicating open hours - these should be adhered to.
No station has a train indicator. Provision of these at all but the largest stations is probably not necessary provided that the Help button is working. However consideration should be given to the installation of train indicators at Dingwall where the Kyle Line diverges. There will be a large number of visitors to this station unfamiliar with its layout, and train indicators will assist them. It is no easy matter to cross quickly to the other platform with luggage or a push chair.
Crossing the line is generally not necessary, but where there are two platforms there can be significant difficulty. The footbridges are generally in good repair and are attractive old structures. But they are generally not accompanied by ramps. As earlier, it has to be asked how likely it is that wheelchair users will use the stations in question. Since, however, it is the larger stations which use two platforms it must be much more likely that a wheelchair user will encounter a bridge problem at, say, Helmsdale than a rough platform problem at Scotscalder. The lack of easy step-free access to all platforms on the FNL seems to us to be the biggest problem with the current infrastructure, and probably the hardest and most expensive to put right.
This is not to say that modest expenditure on other fixed facilities would be amiss. At many stations the standard of platform safety could be raised with very little cost. With passenger slips, trips and falls still presenting one of the largest categories of risk it would be appropriate for this to be looked at. At many stations the tactile edging is far from being compliant and the white line badly needs repainting. We accept that the platform surface is generally adequate, but some platforms are in disrepair. The state of platforms generally should be examined and work carried out during the summer months.
Some stepping distances were measured, and some are very much greater than would be allowed on new build stations. Although steps are usually provided there is little indication that they are ever used; certainly on-train announcements refer to the large gap, but not to the means by which help could be found to bridge it. A passenger waiting to board might sensibly stand by the steps in the hope that help might be sought from the Conductor - no doubt this is given, but the Conductor is rarely in the right place to offer help quickly. It is hard to see how this can be overcome without substantial expenditure on raising platforms at stations with light footfall - NR has higher priorities (and FoFNL has higher priorities too), but the industry should give thought to how it might be better ameliorated. The Beauly model - where the only door in operation is specified - might be a good starting point (eg "for passengers likely to encounter difficulty with a large stepping distance steps are provided at the leading door of the second carriage").
There is work to be done at the line's two termini of Wick and Thurso. Generally speaking these are fine old buildings which have been lovingly looked after over many years. They are decorated with railwayana and their ticket offices carry a wide range of visitor information. There are tended plants and generous seating in the circulating areas. But the luggage locker provision is poor - one has working lockers but the other continues to have them out of use. Both sets would benefit from a thorough cleaning, as would the luggage trolleys (or - better - replacement).
NR - and others - are aware of FoFNL's ambitions for infrastructure enhancements along the FNL, and this is not the place to repeat them. This exercise has uncovered things which need to be put right by NR and by FSR, most of them at very little cost. However it has also uncovered quite a lot of things outwith the direct responsibility of the rail industry to correct - particularly signage linking the station to the community it serves. At some stations - for example Georgemas Junction - there is no nearby settlement and all that is required by way of signage is a large "double arrow" in the obvious place - in the case of Georgemas Junction this is at the junction of the A9 and the station approach road. Many of the "double arrows" are of the smaller variety and fail to be sufficiently conspicuous - these should be replaced by large ones. The point is not to decorate the station - passengers who have reached it can recognise it for what it is - but to indicate its presence from several hundred metres away. This does not happen at Thurso, for example. Indeed there is no indication in the town centre, some 800m away, that there is a station at all. Indication at the station guiding arriving passengers to the town centre is less necessary given that maps are clearly posted at all stations. However not all people can read maps and some kind of finger-post indication giving the general direction would be useful. Wick station is tucked away and could be hard to find. Brora station, although only 40m off the A9, remains completely unmarked - an omission easily remedied by a double-sided sign on the A9 opposite the station yard entrance. (Maybe there used to be such a sign: given the vandalism at Brora it may be vulnerable - tougher fixings, perhaps.) Very lightly-used stations in tiny settlements (or at no settlement at all) can be signed with small "double arrow" signs visible from the turn-off from the road serving the station, but here a sign is also needed to alert motorists as they approach. In some cases this is done, but in others it is patchy or absent altogether.
Inverness Station was surveyed after the other stations. Its facilities are of a much higher standard, and its shortcomings are different in nature from those at the other stations along the FNL. The facilities needed at a terminus are quite different from those needed at other stations on the line. Passenger facilities need to be directed at larger crowds needing different information and services. There is no need for a HELP button, but directions to the Station Supervisor's Office should be much clearer.
Waiting facilities are provided, but they are generally of a minimal standard of comfort (although an improvement on what went before). The seats are metal and cold, and this is exacerbated by the draughty nature of the Concourse itself. Little can be done about the warmth of the Concourse given the nature of the station and location of platforms and entrances, but what can be done should be done. There should be an enclosed waiting room with proper non-metal seats, information monitors and toilet facilities therein or nearby.
Information about buses is poor, and in some cases wrong. Temporary bus stops should always have, if necessary, temporary how-to-find-the-bus information stuck over the normal instructions.
The track condition still gives cause for concern. Ignoring the toilet waste (dealt with elsewhere) there is still a great deal of litter.
The car parking facilities are not ideal, with several problems to be addressed.