Room For Growth - A Reflection Four Years On
by Hamish A. Baillie
As a youngster growing up in Glasgow in the 1960s and 70s, my passion for railways and, in particular, Highland railways, grew. The highlight of my year was always a Freedom of Scotland ticket with which I would disappear from home for two weeks each summer, much to the consternation of my parents who never knew if I was in Thurso, Kyle or Mallaig or somewhere in between. And nowadays it would be frowned upon for a youngster to be seen talking to strangers on a long train journey. I had no fear of being mugged or worse and never even gave it a thought. Changed days indeed!
Of course, then, trains were more of an adventure. Double-headed, long, crowded trains with restaurant cars, packed in summer yet empty in winter and always with the thought that you might not be able to travel the line the next year because the axe would have fallen. Naturally the world has to move on and society changes: we no longer have a tourist season as such and trains have to be more economical. The railways are no longer run with taxpayers' bottomless purses. I used to spend the winter hours writing timetables and sending endless letters of suggestion to Buchanan House (then Headquarters of British Rail Scottish Region and now home to Network Rail Scotland and to Transport Scotland) so I was probably given my first railway job to keep me quiet! After 35 years in the industry, I see it as one of my greatest achievements to have had many of my suggestions taken up, largely with the help of Frank Roach and HITRANS who commissioned Scott Wilson Railways, for whom I was then an Operations Consultant, to review services on the Far North Lines and to write possible timetables which would be consulted upon and be given the approval of Transport Scotland.
So I must hold up my hand and say that it was me who first put the ideas to Frank (and also to Jerry Farquharson of ScotRail) of running the first Kyle train an hour earlier and running the evening departures for Wick and Kyle as a combined train to Dingwall to help overcrowding. And these trains are still there! I remember the speeches made on the first day of operation in December, 2008 where it was stated that the success of the services would depend on how well they were used. To see three well-filled trains arriving in Inverness from the north and west before 09.00 is a revelation about which our Highland Railway forefathers could only have dreamt!
Of course, there are always going to be criticisms and some changes will not suit everyone. Possible enhancements, to gain a more even spread of services, would be to retime the 14.42 Invergordon to around 15.20 and run only as far as Dingwall and to provide a mid-morning departure from Kyle instead of 12.05; the list is probably endless. But I believe the pattern of services, for today's market and travel patterns, is about right and probably the envy of other rural areas which have similar social and topographical characteristics.
The main emphasis should always be connectivity and Bob Barnes-Watts has done a valuable piece of work in getting connections to work. Most of the connections at Inverness rely on the rest of the rail network and it remains to be seen whether the politicians put their money where their mouths are regarding improvements on the Highland Main Line and Aberdeen routes. Much review was done by Frank and me on, for example, re-doubling the line between Culloden and Daviot; an additional loop at Etteridge between Dalwhinnie and Newtonmore; and reinstatement of Ballinluig loop. All of these have come to nothing so far but have been proved essential by computer simulation if there is ever to be an hourly service between Inverness and Perth. Will the anticipated rise in freight traffic ever happen? Who knows? But the container traffic is encouraging. Much work was done on proposals for relocating Forres Station and for long loops between Elgin and Keith and Millburn to Gollanfield between Inverness and Nairn, taking in Dalcross where hopefully there will soon be a new station. So far nothing is forthcoming on the double-tracking but the recent announcement by the Scottish Government that there is to be a station at Dalcross is a step in the right direction.
I feel proud to have been part of the legacy of improved Highland rail services, something not seen remotely likely 40 years ago. Much could still be done but at least the threat of Beeching has been lifted for good.
Hamish Baillie is a rail operations consultant now based in Falkirk.