Alastair Dalton: Unreliable Highland rail service turning off commuters

Highlanders condemned to live in a rail timewarp, writes Alastair Dalton

A train on the Glenfinnan viaduct, part of the West Highland Line. Picture: David Mitchell
A train on the Glenfinnan viaduct, part of the West Highland Line. Picture: David Mitchell

Faced with the prospect of working for a couple of days from our Inverness office rather than my normal Glasgow base, I looked at whether commuting by rail was an option.

Those of us living in the Central Belt have an expectation of frequent and fast trains, which I use for virtually all my work travel.

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Even in the relatively sparsely-populated Borders, trains on the new line to Tweedbank now operate for nearly 19 hours a day – among the longest in Scotland.

But could I reach Inverness for a day’s work by rail from a station just 25 miles away? From Garve, the handiest for where I was staying, there’s one train just before 8am, and after that, unbelievably, the next is not till almost 2pm.

Not surprising then that Inverness feels like Highland Carmageddon when I visit.

It made me realise what a two-tier rail service we have in Scotland. Greater Glasgow benefits from the biggest network outside London, and many other main population centres will see fleets of brand new or refurbished ScotRail trains over the next few years.

Cross-Border travellers will fare even better, with Virgin Trains East Coast introducing faster-accelerating Azuma trains, and the Caledonian Sleeper is bringing in new carriages with en suite showers and double beds.

Even the Perth and Aberdeen to Inverness lines are to be upgraded.

The weary Highland commuter must read all this and weep – although, to be fair, ScotRail has also refurbished their trains.

However, I’m told that passengers’ biggest gripe isn’t the infrequency of trains – they adapt, or drive nearer Inverness where trains run more often. There are in fact more trains running in the northern Highlands now than for decades, if not ever.

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Instead, it’s the unreliability of the service that really irritates, especially when the next train is an hour – or many more – away. You might think that with so few trains on the lines from Inverness north to Wick and Thurso, and west to Kyle of Lochalsh, they’d have a free run.

But no. Both are largely single track, with few loops – the equivalent of passing places on single-track roads. A 24-mile section between Helmsdale and Forsinard in Sutherland is the longest such stretch in Britain, meaning only one train an hour can use it. Even the introduction of a “slower” timetable has failed to improve things, and trains now take half an hour longer than they did a decade ago.

Over the past month, just 29 per cent of trains reached Wick on time. That’s woeful compared to the performance of other long-distance, rural lines. In the same period, 81 per cent of trains arrived in Mallaig on time, 71 per cent in Stranraer and 67 per cent in Oban.

This has led to one of the main evening services north from Inverness being cancelled many times because, I understand, the train due to operate it is so late in arriving.

This has left commuters more than an hour to wait for the next one, and I hear some have ditched the train to join the car-driving hordes.

Campaigners say a few extra miles of double track would make all the difference and not cost the earth.

There’s now a chance it could happen. Network Rail has such plans on its next improvements wish list, from which ministers will choose. And who has just been appointed as cabinet secretary with overall responsibility for transport? Inverness MSP Fergus Ewing. There might just be hope.