Far North train service goes off the rails
SCOTRAIL has been accused of an "appalling" level of service after passengers endured a day of chaos on the Far North rail line on Saturday.
Only two of the eight train journeys on the line that day were relatively trouble free with the remainder either cancelled, terminated early or very late on arrival.
On one service, passengers arrived at Lairg only to be told they would be returned to Dingwall and bussed north from there.
ScotRail has blamed a signalling fault at the Forsinard loop for the disruption, although website Realtimetrains gave the reason as an "issue with the train crew".
The mayhem on the line, which has long been notorious for its unreliability and lengthy delays, is the worst experienced by passengers for months, according to Malcolm Wood, secretary of pressure group, the Friends of the Far North Line (FoFNL).
Mr Wood, who is based in Ardgay, compiles information weekly on the performance of trains on the line. On a good day, the journey time should be around four hours and 22 minutes.
He said: "Last October was so bad I thought nobody would believe it, but it got better from November to Easter and now it has relapsed and we have had some dreadful weeks."
The disorder comes as FoFNL is set to hold its AGM at Inverness Town House today.
One of the speakers at a conference afterwards will be Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing, MSP for Inverness and Nairn, who is expected to update FoFNL members on the progress of a rail review team he set up last December.
The team was tasked to look at what can be done immediately to improve the Far North Line timetable and what infrastructure can be improved in the medium to long term.
Four trains are scheduled to run from Inverness to Wick on a Saturday, leaving the Highland capital at 7am, 10.41am, 2pm and 6.28pm.
The day began badly last Saturday when the 7am train terminated at Lairg with passengers returned to Dingwall where a bus waited to take them north again. ScotRail has said this was the nearest station from where buses were able to be sourced.
The 10.41am train was relatively trouble free but did not call at Thurso. Missing out stops occurs when ScotRail needs to make up time. The 2pm train did not start from Inverness but ran instead from Invergordon. It also missed out Thurso and arrived in Wick 57 minutes late.
The 6.28pm service arrived at Wick 13 minutes late.
The four trains on a Saturday running from Wick to Inverness leave at 6.18am, 8.02am, 12.34pm and 4pm.
The 6.18am service only got as far as Georgemas Junction; the 8.02 reached Inverness 65 minutes late. The 12.34pm service ran on time and the 4pm train missed out Thurso and arrived at Inverness 13 minutes late.
Brora train buff Andrew Bridges, a member of FoFNL and also the Friends of Brora Station, sent an email to ScotRail on Sunday.
He said: "Could you please provide us with an explanation as to the appalling level of service you provided yesterday on the far north line."
Speaking to the Northern Times, Mr Bridges said the main issue with the line was that it was mostly single track with a limited number of loops – similar to passing places on roads.
The 24-mile long section of single rail track between Forsinard and Helmsdale is the longest length of single line track in the UK with no loop. Mr Bridges said: "There are a limited number of places where trains can pass each other, so should just one train be late, then it is likely to impact on train services for the rest of the day."
FoFNL has become aware of a plan by timber extractors to establish a siding for loading wood at a point between Forsinard and Helmsdale. The group has suggested the siding could be made into a loop but it is not known whether this will be taken forward.
MSP Rhoda Grant, who is FoFNL joint vice president and who will be at today’s AGM, said: "These latest problems are in a long line of reliability issues. While there will be incidents that cannot be foreseen, the very poor reliability on this line suggests that action could and should be taken to make the service more sustainable.
"Sadly these issues mean that people are forced to reconsider their plans to travel by rail when their journey is essential. Until the service is reliable we will not increase passenger numbers."
A ScotRail spokesman told the NT that a signalling fault at the Forsinard loop was the cause of the hold-ups.
He said: "We apologise for any inconvenience caused and remind customers delayed more than 30 minutes that they are entitled to compensation under our delay repay guarantee, provided they keep hold of their tickets."