Friends of the Far North Line carried out a series of station inspections in the Spring of 2008, publishing their findings in the FoFNL Newsletter and sending copies of the Report to Network Rail, First ScotRail (FSR) and others seeking action where it was thought necessary. To the credit of FSR most of the actions which fell within their remit were carried out fairly quickly.
Now, seven years later and with a new train operator - Abellio ScotRail (ASR) - it was thought right to repeat the exercise. All stations were visited during August and a pro-forma with Y/N questions was used. Learning from the experience of 2008 some extra questions were added this time. As then, surveys were carried out during daylight so that it was not possible to determine whether station lighting was adequate, or even if it was working. We plan to be vigilant during evening journeys later in the year to fill in this gap in our knowledge.
The general level of provision of appropriate things at each station is very good. New technology has been introduced at several stations - card readers, for example, are installed but not yet operational. CCTV is advertised as being installed at most stations, and in many cases the cameras are clearly visible. It would be interesting to know whether particularly well-concealed cameras are in use in some stations, or whether the "There is CCTV here" signs are sufficient to deter anti-social behaviour without the need for any cameras. It is good to see that Train Indicators have been installed at some stations, some with solar-power panels, but it is disappointing to see untrue or vapid messages being displayed. To see that "No train is due" when a train is due 7 minutes later (and a check was made to ascertain that it was indeed on time) is not clever. Nor is there any point in reminding passengers at a small rural station to keep a close eye on their luggage. The Fat Controller should have a higher opinion of the general common-sense of his "customers". Such indicators should either show truth - the next train is due at XXXX and is on time (or is expected at YYYY) - or should be blank if there is no further train today. We see no reason why there should not be train indicators at all stations other than Inverness The indicator in the Ticket Office at Dingwall is hard to read through the window when the office is closed: it should be made more clearly visible.
We found seven years ago that many platforms were less well-kept than they should be. Were these stations in an urban setting, even with low footfall, we doubt that they would remain apparently neglected for so long. It is depressing to see that stations with poor white line edging, for example, still failed the same test in 2015. Network Rail must attend to these defects as a safety matter. The white lines are not there to look pretty. Other platform faults are harder to rectify: indeed some are probably impossible without disproportionate expenditure (although "disproportionate" in the context of passenger safety is a slippery term to nail down). The tactile edging at many platforms is of poor quality, and is wholly absent in some. Yet at some stations at the southern end of the line it is of a high quality. Platform surfaces are often gravel. This renders the station impossible to use for a wheelchair-bound passenger, and very awkward for someone with a push-chair. While it is unlikely that a wheelchair user will wish to explore the delights of Altnabreac it is quite possible that a family with a small child might visit Forsinard to see the RSPB visitor centre. Many platforms are too low for modern standards. Again, rectifying this would be very expensive, and in recent years portable sets of steps have been provided. However their use, on which we commented in 2008, is not well managed. In 2008 we measured stepping distances between the train and the platform. We did not repeat this test in 2015 as it was time-consuming and the data collected then will be the same now.
HELP buttons (always provided with a 999 button as well) are installed at all stations including Inverness. All were tested and at two locations (Altnabreac and Golspie) were found not to be working. The former was reported to ASR immediately and the fault was repaired the following day (it had already been noted). It was indeed working when checked several days later. It is reassuring to know that such faults are monitored and fixed by the train operator. In 2008 we identified a problem at Forsinard which remains today. There are two platforms, access between which is by the public road which crosses by a level crossing adjacent to the platform ends. The HELP button is on the DOWN platform. If a passenger having to check the UP train does so, and learns that the train is imminent (and invisible), it will be impossible to cross safely to the UP platform without transgressing the flashing lights at the level crossing. Naturally passengers will ignore the lights and cross quickly, knowing that the train is due to stop. Naturally, but unlawfully. At stations where there are two platforms there should be two HELP buttons unless access between them is by footbridge on station premises.
Footbridges themselves are generally in good repair, although often needing a lick of paint. However access for anyone with reduced mobility (or with luggage or a push-chair) is poor. At some stations it is necessary to leave railway premises and use public roads (never clearly signed) to reach the other platform. We accept that building ramps is expensive, but ramps have been installed elsewhere (Inverkeithing, for example) and there is no reason why they should not be installed at FNL stations with higher footfall (eg. Dingwall).
Toilets are not provided at most stations. Where they are (Wick, Thurso, Dingwall and Inverness) they should be open during the hours advertised. At Dingwall access is by a RADAR key kept in the Ticket Office. While the staff member is attending to other duties on the station this means that the toilets are inaccessible. This is not acceptable and some means must be found of keeping the toilets open. If there is a vandalism problem it should be dealt with: closing the toilets is not a solution to a vandalism problem. Toilets were found to be clean and well maintained. Charges are imposed at Inverness (but not at Perth) - why? Shower provision is principally for the benefit of Sleeper passengers, and a charge is reasonable as towels are provided.
Wick and Thurso station buildings are fine structures, well maintained and provided with pleasant plants and seating in the old circulation area. Each has railway memorabilia and carries tourist information. But, as in 2008, each also has a stack of rusty and out-of-use luggage lockers, and rusty unloved (and unused) trolleys. If there is clearly no demand for these facilities they should be removed and sent for recycling. If, on the other hand, it is felt by ASR that luggage storage - perhaps less than is there now - is needed, then it should be modern, clean and in working order. With most suitcases now provided with wheels the need for trolleys is probably nil, and they should be scrapped - after all, they live in the station building and are invisible to any passenger alighting.
Signage within the responsibility of the railway industry is generally good (although not at Tain where there is confusion about the correct platform for UP trains starting there). The double arrow fingerposts on the A9 at Brora (absent in 2008 but replaced since, and frequently noted over the years) were absent when checked this time. We expect this was due to vandalism, and recommend stronger bolts. Signage to the station from town centres is generally poor, if there is any at all.
Inverness is dealt with in a separate Report.