A press report described a very unfortunate incident at Inverness Station on 3 August. The headline was, "Anger as rail passengers asked to get off busy Highland train". The train in question was the 17:12 service to Ardgay which is used by commuters, but on this occasion it was also chosen by around 150 cruise passengers returning to their ship at Invergordon.
According to the newspaper some passengers were asked to leave the train and wait for the 17:54 Kyle service if they were not travelling beyond Dingwall. FoFNL contacted a ScotRail official for more information and received an immediate reply. The train had become so crowded at Inverness that the conductor was unable to reach the back cab or close the doors. The solution chosen was to ask whether any Beauly and Conon Bridge passengers would be willing to wait for the 17:54 service. They all chose to do so and so the train was able to omit those stops. No passengers left the train at Muir of Ord or Dingwall and more boarded, 158 passengers alighted at Invergordon.
ScotRail is well aware of the anger this caused regular travellers as well as the fact that a number of cruise ship passengers were unable to board and had to make their own way to Invergordon. It is vital not to make local passengers feel that they are less welcome than tourists.
ScotRail told us that cruise ship passengers normally travel on the 14:00 or 14:50 services out of Inverness. However, the 2hr 22min gap before the next train at 17:12 does put that service at risk if the 14:50 is missed.
ScotRail has highlighted this performance risk internally and is looking at options to improve the situation.
The Inverness-based Class 158 trains have a seating capacity of 137 so an influx of 150+ cruise ship passengers cannot be accommodated without adding an extra two-coach unit to the service. The chances of there being a spare unit available are probably slim and could only really be guaranteed by leasing an extra Class 158 which might then lie unused most of the time at great expense.
The issue of tapping into the cruise ship market is problematic for ScotRail at present, but in the longer term, with new trains and some infrastructure investment, as discussed by the Far North Line Review Team, it may become easier.
It is worth noting that it is currently rather difficult for potential travellers, many of whom may not speak much English, to find out about the ScotRail services. The posters outside Invergordon Station are not specific to the station and the QR code on them simply points to the ScotRail website. If ScotRail wishes to attract 'spur of the moment' cruise passengers there needs to be a list of specific opportunities with train times and cost clearly displayed. In an article by Rolf Schmidt in the September 2018 edition of Far North Express the problem with potential cruise passengers was pointed out:
"The obvious way to get more cruise passengers onto the Far North Line is to advertise it through the information stand at the foot passenger exit of the port. There may also be possibilities on-line.
Ironically, with this many potential customers (1500 in his example) we are at risk of seriously overcrowding the trains instead of just filling spare seats if the idea catches on."