Transport Connections in the Highlands 2008 (Part 1)
In the light of the efforts being made to increase the use of train services on the North Highland Lines, I was asked by the Highland Rail Partnership to examine the existing links between rail and bus and to suggest any possible enhancements. While the Post Bus network has been reduced in recent years, other operators have taken over some routes, most under Council contract with faster journey times and using larger vehicles.
Thanks to HITRANS and local Councils, work has been done to provide connecting bus services at several stations BUT it is the provision of information alerting potential travellers that is the weak link in the system.
The major problem regarding connections from rail to bus and vice versa is that, if the connectional margin between the arrival of one transport mode and the departure of another is less than five minutes, plus however many extra minutes designated as 'walking time', the system does not recognise that interchange as a journey option. Given that a physical connection can be made at such stations as Strathcarron, Achnasheen and Lairg in less than five minutes and it would be somewhat excessive to retime the connecting bus to take account of this programming anomaly, all the good efforts made in providing those connectional opportunities are generally for naught.
As an example, an enquiry for a journey from Inverness to Lochcarron will show a departure at 0853 with an arrival at Lochcarron 4 hours 2 minutes later. Although the train arrives at Strathcarron at 1037 and there is a bus at 1040, the Traveline system discounts that bus as an option as the margin is only 3 minutes and instead shows the 1245 bus that connects out of the 1052 train from Inverness.
This is an absurd situation and was first pointed out almost two years ago. One wonders how many potential passengers have been deterred from contemplating such a journey with the resultant adverse effect on passenger loadings. Surely there must be a relatively simple software 'tweak' that could be made to rectify this situation? While the provision of accurate information has gradually improved over the last two years, the Traveline website still cannot be relied upon.
A recent example concerns the 958 Inverness to Thurso coach service where one round trip from Thurso to Inverness has been 'temporarily suspended' on Mondays to Saturdays from 4th February 2008. The suspended services continued to be shown online until 11th February. One of these journeys, the 1815 Inverness to Thurso, constituted the last public transport service to Caithness with no alternative.
Although the Highland Council produce area timetable guides in association with Rapsons, it is acknowledged that they have been less than accurate and, given the sparse services on many routes and the vagaries of the information provided by computerised systems, it is essential that these guides are checked and double-checked for accuracy. One missing note which could mean the bus does not run on that day could mean disaster to a potential passenger stranded in a more rural area. Telephone numbers are missing from certain 'dial a Bus' listings.
Timetable information at bus stops has been of a sporadic quality. In many cases there have been several service changes since the timetable was put in the display case, although improvements have been noted in recent weeks.
Onward Travel information posters are provided at all First ScotRail stations but it has been noted that bus information is incorrect on some of them. The train company is working to rectify these errors.
Liaison between First ScotRail and Caledonian Macbrayne ensures that connections between rail and ship are generally very good at both Oban and Mallaig with train times appearing in CalMac publicity and vice versa. A similar situation exists with Northlink ferries at Scrabster via Thurso although I was disappointed to note that in their recently updated 'Ports and travel connections' page on the Northlink website, the company has stopped providing any timetable information and there is just a list of links to transport operators. Intending rail passengers are directed to click on the outdated scotrail.co.uk link. Prior to the update the times shown for trains on the Far North Line applied only to the Winter 2006/7 timetable. Facilities to connect into the Pentland Ferries sailings from Gills Bay are shown under the Thurso and Wick station headings. There are no reasonable connections into the John O'Groats Ferry operating to Burwick, Orkney as the company offers a connecting dedicated chartered bus from Inverness which is offered as part of a combined ticket. Arisaig Marine provides a Summer service to Eigg, Muck and Rum - see the entry for Arisaig. Sailings operated by Bruce Watt Cruises to Inverie have convenient train connections to/from Fort William.
At present it is difficult to travel by public transport between the Cairngorm National Park and both Lochaber and the Moray Coast. While the 'Strathspey Stroller' service 500 operates at weekends providing one return journey from Cullen, Buckie and Elgin to Grantown, Aviemore and Cairngorm, there is no link between Aviemore, Kingussie and Newtonmore and Tulloch, Roy Bridge, Spean Bridge and Fort William. Perhaps a high quality, well publicised coach link on the above routes, included perhaps in the Freedom of Scotland Travelpass, would attract visitors keen to relax and enjoy the scenery as well as those using said services to travel between overnight accommodation.
A concerted effort should be made to persuade visitor attractions to include details on how to get there by public transport. So many tourist destination brochures only give details of access by car when there may well be a suitable public transport service.
At first glance at the station grid one may wonder why connections are being shown to Strathpeffer out of trains from Inverness when common sense would surely dictate that a bus could be used end-to-end!
Passengers from Beauly and Muir of Ord will probably find using the train to Dingwall more convenient as the buses (19/19A) from those towns contrive to miss the Strathpeffer bus (27) by 3 minutes.
Passengers using the CalMac ferry from Stornoway could find a connection between the 61 bus and the train useful both for North and Southbound journeys. Very importantly there is no liaison between rail and bus operators to cater for advice regarding out-of-course running - the bus doesn't wait for the train and the train doesn't wait for the bus!
NB The issues regarding sub 5 minute connection margins at Achnasheen, Lairg and Strathcarron have been addressed; journeys via these points involving a change from the train to the connecting bus appear to have been resolved, at least for the current timetable period until 17 May 2008.
Part 2 of this article appears in the next newsletter.