This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Railwatch. Reprinted with permission from the author.
When I became Chair of Railfuture Scotland, I decided I would like to get out and about to visit our affiliated rail user groups. For many people in remoter parts of Scotland, it is easy to feel as far away from Edinburgh as from London, and I thought I would meet user groups at first hand, hear about their campaigns, and see if Railfuture could help in any way. Below is an account of my visit to Inverness-Thurso to see the North Line Action Group, a distance of well over 300 miles.
My journey started at 08:04 leaving Drem, my local station. Little did I realise that it would be more than 10 hours before I arrived at Thurso that night! Everything started well until I arrived at Perth, when the train I was on was suddenly cancelled. We passengers were directed to the next train which, however, would be too late to meet the Inverness-Thurso train at 14:00. Not to worry. We were assured that transport would be provided at Inverness. It duly was and the remaining passengers heading north piled into two taxis at Inverness station. Instead of taking us to Thurso though, we were unceremoniously dumped at Golspie, to await the Inverness train which was some distance behind us by now.
Because the rail line does not have the advantage of a Dornoch Firth crossing, the train has to make a long detour, serving several small towns on the way. It consequently takes far longer than the road journey. No facilities were available at Golspie station other than a very inadequate bus shelter. For five people on a cold December afternoon, this was not an enjoyable experience as we had to take turn about in the bus shelter to keep warm. Eventually the train arrived an hour later, with a welcome trolley service for us to have a hot cup of tea.
We proceeded to Thurso, at one stage going backwards at Georgemas Junction, apparently normal procedure. It was now well after 18:00 and I was relieved to get to the warm and welcoming Station Hotel in Thurso. I found it hard to believe that after 10 hours travel I was still on the Scottish mainland. The unfortunate people going on to Wick still had a further half an hour journey to undertake.
Next day I met with Mark Norton, the North Line Action Group convenor, as well as local community councillors, a representative from the Caithness Transport Forum, and group members campaigning for a better rail service. They described the service as being "totally run down" with 22 cancellations between June and September this year, cancellations which often did not have any rail replacement service. Reasons for cancellations differed, from weather to lack of staff or signalling problems. There seemed to be a significant lack of engagement from ScotRail in listening to local concerns and in attempting to rectify the problems on the line.
Members also recounted the difficulties that local people had using the bus service to Inverness where medical treatment for the north-east is now centred. A three-hour bus journey was difficult to say the least, compared to the freedom of being able to move about on the train. This was a particular problem for patients suffering from muscular injuries, cancer, neurological conditions or anyone with a walking aid. "Not a suitable journey for sick people" was a comment made, although too often it was a journey they had to make.
After a thorough discussion of the issues, and agreement on ways to take matters forward, I made my way back to Thurso station, only to find that all trains on the line were cancelled because of "bad weather". In vain did I point out that there was no bad weather in Thurso. It was actually quite a fine sunny day but it had been decided elsewhere that the weather necessitated cancellation of all services and that was that. Bad weather was expected on the west coast, so trains on the east coast were cancelled as well.
I was directed to the service bus, along with many others who paid an extra £19 for this privilege with no information given how to reclaim the unused portion of their return ticket. The three-hour bus journey encountered no bad weather, had a quick stop in Dornoch as it was ahead of time, and arrived in Inverness promptly. What a shame the train could not have done so as well.The North Line Action Group is now gearing up to encourage more involvement from local politicians to highlight the inadequacies of the rail service. I felt that this could only be a good thing. This is a very picturesque line which could be promoted through tourism as a scenic highlight, yet the frequent cancellations and reports of poor infrastructure need to be addressed.
I was reminded of the descriptions of the Waverley route in the Borders in the years before closure, when services were cancelled and withdrawn in order to make the line unsustainable and more suitable for closure. I hope the same fate is not in store for the Far North Line as its beautiful scenery deserves more attention, as well as the essential service it provides to the small communities on its route.