Dressed in black, with no fishing rods or rucksacks, they did not look like the usual anglers or hillwalkers that one might encounter here. No, these were British Transport Police, spending Sunday afternoon intercepting hillwalkers and warning them not to cross the nearby railway line.
Previously, one hillwalker, after crossing the line, had been charged with trespassing – and yet hundreds of others cross the line here every year. Such incidents provide an indication of how Network Rail deals with hillwalkers in Scotland. They also give food for thought about UK organisations and their relevance to the forthcoming independence referendum.
The police officers seemed a little bemused as I explained to them that hillwalkers crossing the line here were not trespassers but had an “implied consent” to do this, providing they took due care and attention, and followed the route across the line which had been tolerated by every other railway organisation before Network Rail. We discussed the impossibility of getting a bridge built here (Network Rail refusing to acknowledge the problem and spend any money to resolve it); the unsatisfactory alternative route (squeezing under a culvert and wading through a burn, the dangers of drowning and hypothermia exceeding those of trains on the line above); the potential value of signs beside the track to warn hillwalkers to take great care when crossing in groups or in misty conditions.
You will find no guidance in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code on crossing railway lines. This is because Network Rail failed to co-operate with Scottish Natural Heritage when they were drafting the Code. At that time they were closing down some level crossings in Scotland without any public consultation and deliberately defying or ignoring local authorities who protested. Asked for an explanation the answer was that there had been a number of railway accidents down south, and, as a consequence, senior managers wanted to eliminate the risks entirely, even if this led to massive restrictions on pedestrian access across remote Scottish railway lines.
Ben Lui is not the only place in Scotland where you could get a criminal record as a result of crossing the railway line. According to Network Rail, you could get one as a result of using most of our 400 level crossings classed as “private”. Since 2004, Network Rail has fixed blue signs to virtually all of these crossings, stating “Private Level Crossing – Authorised Users Only”. Ask Network Rail what this means for the general public and they will claim that any member of the public using such a crossing is a trespasser.
There are three potential solutions to this nonsense. Perhaps the simplest would be for the chief executives of Network Rail and the Office of Rail Regulator to be told to sort out the operations in Scotland so the public can cross lines in a safe and straightforward manner, as was the case pre-2004.
Another solution may be for everyone to vote Yes in the forthcoming referendum so that Network Rail in Scotland becomes a separate organisation, entirely responsible to Scottish Government ministers for their activities. My conversations with various Scottish Transport ministers have always hit the buffers when they have explained they can do nothing about the situation because Network Rail appears to apply English rights of way law to their operations in Scotland, despite being repeatedly told that is not appropriate. That would presumably change in an independent Scotland.
A third solution might be to vote No, providing the Better Together campaign can demonstrate that current arrangements with UK bodies can be made to work. Their leader, Alistair Darling MP, might like to examine a newly constructed wooden walkway across the railway line near Pitlochry, presumably there to help anglers walk down to the River Tay. Exactly the same solution is needed at Ben Lui. As a former UK Transport minister he did little to resolve the railway crossings issue when in office, but in his Better Together role perhaps he can arrange for Ben Lui crossing to be constructed, as well as getting all those ridiculous blue signs removed, before September. And please can he also tell us how further devolved powers will be given to Scottish ministers to ensure effective control of Network Rail operations in Scotland.
• Dave Morris is director of Ramblers Scotland www.ramblers.org.uk/scotland