My first ever post on this blog (and indeed this website) was my trip in September 2017 to Breich station in West Lothian. When I visited the station, I didn't originally plan to write about it. However, in a moment of sheer boredom, I scrawled something down, set up a website and shoved my account up on the internet. Now, about 14 months later, I have a project that I'm working on. If you read my original post, then you may remember that I mentioned Network Rail proposed closure of the station due to the high costs associated with upgrading it ready for the electrification works. I also noted that the proposal for closure had been denied. For a long period of 2017-2018, Breich was closed whilst Network Rail entirely re-built the station, both to bring it up to date and to accommodate the extra electrification infrastructure. I decided that the rebuild was a reason for me to revisit the station and see the change for myself.
This post is also a chance for me to test my new phone (yes, exciting). My previous phone lasted for 3 years and has been used to take all the pictures so far for this blog. It finally started to die, meaning that I had to exchange it for a new one. The new phone lasted for a grand total of 36 hours before throwing a tantrum at my choice of radio station and died completely. Whilst I would have accepted this response if I had made it tune to Heart FM or some other ghastly “music” radio station, I don't accept this as a response to the BBC World Service. So, back to the phone shop it was. I visited various branches of the same company's shops 4 times in as many days before the situation was resolved satisfactorily. Of course, one of my biggest hobbies (outside the railways) is standing by a counter in a slightly-too-cold shop whilst a member of staff asks me questions such as “did you try turning it off and on again?”. It's almost as interesting as the harmonic progressions of a particularly exotic Wagner opera. However, I now have a phone, which works and has a better camera than my previous one did.
(For those of you who haven't read my original post on Breich, I would suggest that you do because the change from then to now is quite substantial. It is available here.)
Despite the re-building, Breich continues to have a very limited service of just one train per day in each direction, and no trains on Sundays. There is a service at 08:06 from Glasgow to Edinburgh, and a return at 18:38. This means that one has to use alternative transport in at least one direction because standing on a platform for 10 and a half hours is not something even someone as mad as me would enjoy.
Previously, I had used the train to get to Breich and the bus to return. This time, I decided to use the bus to get there and the train to return.
I found myself approaching Haymarket station on Saturday, armed with a 2 litre water bottle and hope. I had successfully chosen a day when there was a rugby match going on at Murrayfield. When I arrived, the match was still going on, but the queueing system had already been laid out. Having purchased my tickets, I weaved my way through the station before arriving on the platform in time for my train to peak out of the tunnel and stop at the station. I boarded the train and took my seat for the 20 minute journey to West Calder, where I would pick up a bus to take me the rest of the distance to Breich. The train vibrated violently as it attempted to reach the speed limit. This wasn't very pleasant, so I was glad when it dropped me off at West Calder, only a couple of minutes late.
I walked the short distance from the station to the main area where I ducked into a shelter to wait for my bus.
My grandmother recently told me somebody had said that it never rained in Edinburgh. As I sat in the bus shelter, watching the rain sheeting down, those words seemed rather hollow. To be fair, I was actually in West Calder, which is a whole 17 miles away. Furthermore, everyone knows that rain avoids Edinburgh altogether because there is a very big Primark in the city centre. If there's one thing rain can't stand, it's making a Primark and a Sainsbury's Local wet at the same time. I checked the weather forecast and saw that there was a 70% chance of precipitation right up until 8pm that night. It looked like I was going to be in for a wet visit to Breich.
The bus was 10 minutes away at this point. A car drew up to the bus stop and parked there and the driver ran into the shop. This isn't good behaviour, but I decided not to take a picture of the car out of respect for his privacy. Instead, I watched as a different bus held up traffic as it performed its normal duties due to the selfishness of this car driver. He returned 5 minutes later with a 12-pack of beer cans. All respect quickly vanished. The numberplate of the car is MX14YYZ.
Shortly afterwards, my bus arrived. Since I had last visited the town, the route had changed operator from First Group to Blue Bus Scotland. The single far from West Calder to Breich has reduced by 80p, but the service has been maintained. The route also doesn't insist on taking a huge detour via the whole of Addiewell on its way from West Calder to Breich. It is for this reason that I prefer Blue Bus Scotland.
I was deposited in the rain in the middle of Breich village along with one other person. The railway station is a 15 minute walk outside the village, which is one of the factors for its low use. That, the lack of a sizeable population nearby (other than the village) and the severe lack of trains.
After quite a boring trudge up the main road, made worse by the rain and the darkness of night (even though it wasn't even 5pm), I found myself on the approach to the station. Other than the main entrance from the crossroads, there is a short, steep footpath (which is much more convenient when approaching from Breich village). At this entrance, a new sign proudly tells me that this station was built by CTP Construction. I walked down it, only to be greeted by a some barriers and fences. I had to walk up a mud track (which is used by Network Rail vehicles) to the main entrance in order to legitimately gain access to the station, which involved walking back down this track, this time using the tarmacked ramp which was protected by fences at either side.
I do not like the new-look Breich station. It has lost all the original rural charm, un-kept vegetation and adorable little features that the previous station had. Instead, it has become a very standard, modern and bland place, only with the same awful level of service. The platforms are significantly shorter than they once were; They stop at the entrance to the station where previously they continued further towards the road bridge. At the other end, they stop well short of their previous length. The positions for trains to stop are at roughly the same place on the railway line as they were before, although these positions relative to the platforms have changed so that they are now at either end rather than roughly the middle. The footbridge has gone meaning that people have to use the road bridge in order to cross from one platform to the other. The only good thing about the new station (from my point of view) is that it is now fully accessible. Otherwise, I much prefer the old station.
The facilities are better than they were previously. There are now shelters, benches and a help point on both platforms, although the only Smartcard reader I could find was located on the Glasgow-bound platform (passengers for Edinburgh would have to walk all the way down the ramp to the opposite platform, touch their Smartcard, then return up the ramp to the road, cross the bridge and back down the ramp in order to board the train, which is a tripling of the distance). Where Breich previously had no CCTV cameras and a notice warning people of the existence of CCTV cameras, it now has two notices and 12 CCTV cameras. This is fairly excessive for a small 2 platform station. See if you can spot them all!
Despite the re-build, the station has drainage issues, as illustrated here.
After I had spent about an hour walking between the two platforms and getting some weird looks from motorists, I decided that my hands had frozen enough and I was due a break. I took refuge in a waiting room for the remaining hour. My phone had also got quite wet, despite my best efforts to protect it from the elements by putting it an old sock for the times I wasn't using it to take pictures. I dried it on one of my inner layers, un-smeared it using an old glasses cloth and walked around the small shelter on the Glasgow-bound platform waiting for the 18:38 departure. I was glad to be in one place by this point because I had been finding the logistics of taking pictures whilst also keeping track of my 2 litre water bottle quite a challenge.
At 17:58, 40 minutes before my train was due, it popped up on the departure board (previously these had either been displaying “please see station timetable posters or use the help point for more information” - I didn't see any such posters at the station, or “Please stand clear, the next train is passing through”). It then flicked from “on time” to “delayed” to “9 minutes late” before slowly increasing as the minutes ticked by. I realised that a lot of this delay would be down to the scrum of passengers coming from the rugby (pun intended).
The train arrived 14 minutes late. As the conductor got out of the back, I gave him a small wave. He released the doors and I boarded. I found a seat that wasn't too full of rugby fans and beer, and also wasn't too close to an open window. It was 6 degrees outside and still raining. Why windows were open, I have no idea.
Because it wasn't actually that late (it wasn't even 7pm by the time I was on board), I decided to explore some of the suburban Glasgow network that I hadn't previously done before heading back to Edinburgh and home. I bought a ticket from the guard from Breich to Lanark (in Lanarkshire). This involved a change at Bellshill. I changed there, and discovered that our delay meant I had missed the connection to Lanark. I got the next one 30 minutes later and enjoyed the short round trip to Lanark and back into Glasgow. I alighted at Glasgow and took a quick picture of the train before standing and fumbling for my ticket. This meant that someone mistook me for a member of staff and asked me if they could be let through the ticket barriers as their ticket had been mutilated. Given that I was wearing headphones and was looking blankly at the floor, I was unsure why he had decided that I was a member of staff. Possibly my blue raincoat, which (as everyone knows) is only worn by ScotRail staff. Nobody other than employees of Abellio ScotRail has ever worn a blue raincoat. My coat wasn't even the right shade of blue.
Given that this man had touched my arm without permission, I decided I deserved a reward of fish and chips. I bought some and ate them on the concourse at Glasgow Queen Street. The platform for my train to Edinburgh was announced and I joined the scrum at the ticket barriers. I was very pleased that my train was formed of the new class 385 electric train that ScotRail recently introduced. This was to be my first travel on one of these problematic beasts. I used the age-old trick of using the coaches furthest away from the entrance to get a seating area to myself whilst the majority piled in at the back. My quick review is that they are clean and fresh, although the announcements are far too numerous and the seating is much less comfortable than previous rolling stock.
I finished my water on the train home and discarded the bottle into a recycling bin near Haymarket station. Environmental.
Whilst upgrades must happen in the name of progress, Breich is a baffling case. Network Rail have spend an awful lot of money to completely re-build the entire station, but there are no other benefits. Currently, no additional trains stop at Breich meaning that it is as unattractive as it has always been for passengers, only now it has cost the taxpayer and fare-payer millions of pounds. I hope that, when the new electric services are introduced on the route that Breich gets at least an hourly service. This would put it on par with all the other stations on the line. Otherwise, it will have been a huge waste of money. I have already made my opinions on the aesthetics of the station clear, and it is a shame that so much of its charm has been removed in the refurbishment.
What do you think about the re-build? Do write in. (Or not, I really don't mind.)
The West Highland Line runs from Glasgow to the Western ports of Oban and Mallaig via the West Highlands (as the name suggests). It provides connections to the various islands that lie off the west coast of Scotland. Due to the rural nature of the route, it passes through very small and remote places, some wonderful scenery and has become famous in its own right as one of the best railway journeys in the UK, possibly even the world. It was used for the filming of the Harry Potter series, and has had a steady stream of tourists through the summer months for The Jacobite, the only regular timetabled steam service which runs from Fort William to Mallaig (the very top end of the line) from June to October.
As mentioned before, the line has some very small and remote stations en-route. This ranges from places like Corrour, the highest station in the UK, which seems to exist mainly for the tourist attractions, to places like Lochailort and Beasdale which serve the tiny villages which are scattered across the line.
Lochailort station is situated close to the villages of Lochailort and Inverailort, near the mouth of the River Ailort and at the northern end of Loch Ailort. In recent years, patronage has declined from nearly 3000 passengers per year to about 1500 in the most recent figures. I decided that, whilst not under 1000 per year, it still warranted a visit.
Instead of starting from my usual locations of London or Edinburgh, I found myself waking up in a hostel on the banks of Loch Lochy, which is located about 20 miles north and east of Fort William. Why was I there?
I am a librarian of the Edinburgh University Wind Band, which is a fabulous society. Every year, they have a weekend away to the same hostel in the Highlands where the members of band spend a student weekend (mostly getting drunk, although there are a lot of other things that happen). Last year, I realised that it would be possible to get from there down to Spean Bridge (which is the closets railway station located ~12 miles south) where I could have some railway experiences on the West Highland Line whilst my colleagues did university work, or played games, or slept (or a combination of all three). So, with my alarm going off at a prohibitively early 08:45am, I got dressed (doing my best not to disturb my snoozing room mates), packed my bag and went downstairs. There, breakfast was being prepared. I helped by eating some of it. I was enthusiastically waved off at about 10am by the remainder of the group as I started the 150 metre walk to the bus stop where I would catch a coach for the 20 minute journey to Spean Bridge. It was very cold (it never got above 5 degrees for the whole day), there was frost on the ground and snow on the peaks. This was the scene from the bus stop.
At 10:27, 2 minutes late, the coach arrived. I showed my “ticket” (the confirmation e-mail which I had printed off) and took my seat. We made another stop at Laggan Locks (about 5 minutes south) where another person boarded. 15 minutes later, the coach arrived into the village of Spean Bridge. The driver stopped at the bus stop, and I thanked him as I got off. I managed to take an awful picture of the bus departing. I then walked the 3 minutes to the railway station. The bus had arrived at Spean Bridge at 10:50, and my train to Lochailort departed at 11:56. I had just over an hour at Spean Bridge station.
Whilst not being a particularly underused railway station (~7000 people used it last year), I did enjoy Spean Bridge. The old station building has been converted into a restaurant. There is also an old signal box which hasn't yet decayed. One of the odd things is that trains at Spean Bridge run the “wrong way”. Usually, trains in the UK run on the left-hand side. However, trains at Spean Bridge run on the right hand side. It is a passing loop, so it doesn't really matter, but I found this quite confusing as I automatically went to the left-hand platform (as looking in the Fort William direction) before realising that I had gone to the wrong one. The Glasgow-bound platform extends into a small wood which as going into a lovely shade of autumnal colours.
At 11:54, the southbound service to Glasgow arrived on the other platform. It was supposed to depart at 11:56, the same time as my Mallaig service. The two trains are meant to pass each other at Spean Bridge. However, this Glasgow service was given the authority to proceed into the single track section beyond Spean Bridge. This confused me, and also another passenger who had arrived wanting a train to Fort William. By this point, another Network Rail person had arrived. They were discussing various events. I overheard one of them say that the female driver of 1Y22 (the early morning service from Oban to Glasgow) had overrun a signal. I only add the information about the driver being female because the Network Rail people constantly repeated it. “So SHE overran the signal, and then SHE spoke to the signaller who told HER that SHE could proceed but then SHE reported it...” (I paraphrase slightly.) I spoke to them asking if they knew what was going on about our 11:56 to Mallaig which, at this point, had been wiped from the departure board. They said that it was coming and that they were waiting for it too. Earlier in the day, there had been a points failure at Spean Bridge meaning that they needed to make sure that trains could run over the points in question without them failing again. This also helped explain why the signaller had decided not to allow the trains to pass at Spean Bridge. If the points had failed again, that would have meant our Mallaig service would be able to use the “wrong” platform and be able to continue perfectly well. However, if the points failed and both trains had been in the station, then they would have been stuck.
The passenger who wanted to travel from Spean Bridge to Fort William said that she would use the bus from now on due to the disruption she experienced. I can't say I blame her, although public transport in this area of Scotland is sparse, especially during the weekends so I doubt that she will entirely abandon the railway, even if it is deeply annoying.
Finally, about 35 minutes late, the 11:56 service finally arrived.
We both boarded, and the train set off for Fort William. At Fort William, the train reversed in order to continue to Mallaig. On board, passengers were requested by the guard to make contact with him if they were supposed to be making connections to the 2pm sailings from Mallaig. Once we had set off from Fort William, the guard came through to check tickets. I showed my tickets and requested Lochailort. Lochailort is a request stop. We passed through various little settlements, some of which I will be visiting for the blog. We also passed over the famous Glenfinnan viaduct, which is quite a spectacle. Not only is it a fabulous piece of engineering in spectacular countryside, it is also hilarioius to watch various tourists and the like cram over to one side of the train to take out-of-focus phone pictures of it. 2 minutes later, we arrived at Glenfinnan station, one of the most well used on the Fort William to Mallaig section of the line. Lochailort is the station after Glenfinnan. However, it takes 15 minutes to traverse this section of the railway. It passes through some wonderful scenery, including around Loch Eilt. After we had run the length of the Loch, we crossed the road via a bridge and clung round the Highlands until Lochailort station came into view. The train stopped and I got out. The conductor wished me a nice day and pointed at the exit. I thanked him and soon the train was departing west to Mallaig. I had arrived 36 minutes late.
Lochailort station is located quite a distance above the road and the village in terms of height. A disused and very overgrown platform is visible. The facilities of the remaining platform are a waiting room, some notices, a CCTV pole and a gate. The station also has a car park where most of the notices, a help point and some bike racks are. I was disappointed that the station was all tarmac, rather than the usual red gravel that the majority of lesser-used Scottish stations have.
When I arrived, there was a group of Network Rail vehicles (yes, again) complete with people. I spent about 20 minutes at the station with them before deciding that I should vacate the station and explore the local area before returning and doing a more extensive documentation of the station before my train back. Despite the delay, I still had over 3 hours to play with.
As I walked down the path, the group of Network Rail employees appeared to get the “all-clear” from their control, so they ventured out on to the line to start working on whatever it was they were doing.
The Surrounding Area
Meanwhile, I had arrived in the village of Lochailort, which appear to consist of a hotel, a church and a bus stop. There was also a phone box, which had a notice of termination in it. It stated that, 42 days from the notice being put up, the phone box would be removed. That notice was dated August 2016, a mere 800 days ago. I turned left off the main Fort William to Mallaig road towards the Loch, the river and the village of Inverailort. The scenery by Loch Ailort is brilliant, so I spent some time enjoying it.
As I had walked down to the Loch, I had noticed a rather imposing building, known as Inverailort House, nearby. I decided to explore it. Inverailort House is a Victorian building which, over the years, has been used as Farmhouse, a Shooting Lodge and a training base for the army during the Second World War. Since then, it has been abandoned meaning that it has slowly decayed. Now, some windows are boarded up, others are broken and it is covered in “DANGER: KEEP OUT” signs. The gates to the grounds are locked, and I assume the doors to the actual house are locked too, although the state of the windows means that it wouldn't be too hard to gain entry. I did not venture either into the grounds or the house. I stayed outside to gather my pictures.
With about an hour and a half to go before my train back to Spean Bridge, I returned to the station in order to gather more pictures and enjoy the solitude.
The Return Journey
My train back to Spean Bridge arrived about 5 minutes late. I enjoyed the journey back to Fort William. There a group of two fantastically stereotypical hipsters boarded at sat opposite me, complete with bandannas, dreadlocks and alcohol. I was most annoyed. A female passenger who had been on the train the whole time I had been on joined them. They proceeded to drink some orange juice before decanting their entire bottle of rum into the partly empty orange bottle. Hipster one (the one with the stupid beard and bandanna) proceeded to drink a bit before exclaiming “Shit, that's really strong”. Clearly they hadn't worked out the basic physics of stirring/shaking. By that point I had put my headphones on. I showed my intense displeasure at their loud and obnoxious existence by staring out of the window for the duration of the journey from Fort William to Spean Bridge. An elderly couple opposite me made more vocal exclamations of annoyance at the hipsters as they moved carriage due to the racket. This caused the hipsters to move across to the unoccupied seats so that they could sit together. They forgot the bottle cap, and spent about 5 attempts trying to reach it from their seat before one got up off their bum and retrieved it.
The train arrived at Spean Bridge, where I got off. I walked the short distance back to the bus stop where I had another hour-long wait before another coach arrived to take me back to the hostel. The driver very kindly dropped me off directly outside the hostel, rather than at the bus stop which was about 100 metres to the north. I thanked him and went inside, just in time for the wind band committee to serve supper. Despite it having been a successful trip, I was very cold and was looking forward to something hot.
People who have read previous posts will know that I am very pro small stations that serve small villages. The people of Lochailort, Inverailort and other tiny settlements that fall into the catchment area of Lochailort station deserve a form of public transport.
Inverailort House was a nice bonus as I was not expecting it to exist. Prior to the trip, I had not realised it existed. Part of me wishes that I had had the courage to venture into the grounds and have a proper poke around to see what was going on, but the other part of me thinks that I was right to stay well away. Derelict buildings should not be ventured into, if any sci-fi film or television show is to be believed. Or, more importantly, if structural engineers are to be believed.
I don't know why, but I wanted to save Kildonan for a later point. There were other stations on the Far North Line that I wanted to visit first, but here it is. The reason for the visit was that it was announced by HITRANS (Highlands & Islands Transport Partnership) that they were proposing that the station would be closed meaning that I had to jump in in case it actually was. Much like the reason for visiting Breich almost exactly 1 year ago. In August, it was decided that Kildonan would not close, but the tickets had been booked, so I found myself at Haymarket station at 6am, waiting for my first train of the day.
Kildonan sits north of Helsmdale, near Kildonan Lodge in the Highlands. It is one of the most remote stations in the country. It is the 5th least used station overall, but the first station on the list that has a train every day. It also has one of the lowest passenger:train ratios of any station, with an average of 0.03 passengers per train, or 1 passenger for every 30 trains (there are 44 trains in a normal week). To put this in perspective, the current least-used station, Barry Links, has an average of 0.04 passengers per train.
I arrived at Haymarket station in time for the 06:38 departure to Dunblane, which I took as far as Stirling. Changing there, I took the train that would carry me all the way to Inverness via the Highland Main Line. The train whisked me through the Highlands, sometimes stopping at settlements of various sizes. At Dalwhinnie, we were put into the wrong platform, which meant a few confused passengers had to do the weird run that only rail passengers do. The type that says “I'm trying to get to you faster, but I really can't be bothered to actually run”, leading to a half-arsed jog from one bit of the station down to the other. Dalwhinnie is the least-used on the Highland main line, used by all of ~3000 passengers per year. Continuing through the Highlands, we arrived at Inverness on time at 10:28.
As I alighted (train speak for “got off”) at Inverness, I noticed a large crowd of old people behind the ticket barriers looking at the departure boards. My 10:41 train onwards to the Far North Line was advertised on platform 6, but was the front unit of 2. My hope was that because this large crowd of people were all waiting behind the ticket barriers, they were getting the 10:56 service to Kyle of Lochalsh, which was yet to have a platform shown. I boarded a very quiet train, located my reserved seat, and waited. The PA system gleefully announced that we were going to Kyle of Lochalsh, before a very apologetic guard popped up to say that this was the Wick via Thurso train. The automatic announcements were quickly changed.
3 minutes later, a flood of pensioners boarded the train, complete with a tour guide in a kilt. They spent the next 15 minutes working out who was going to sit where, whilst the tour guide did his best to find a polite way of telling them all to just sit down for goodness sake. Luckily, my table was preserved from being swamped by the oncoming flood of tourists meaning that as we left Inverness (10 minutes late because of a late-running southbound service), I could sprawl across a few seats.
The guard came through, checking tickets. I made sure that she knew that I wanted to get off at Kildonan. She marked it off on her list and informed the driver. A person seated near me was going to Dunrobin Castle, a request stop which is open during the summer only. This is the first time I have been on a FNL service where the train has stopped at more than one request stop (usually, I am the only one who requests anywhere).
As we moved through more of the Highlands, the kilt-bearing tour guide walked up and down the carriage reeling off various facts about some of the things we passed. “That's the Caledonian Canal...” he said as we passed over the Clachnaharry swing bridge that takes the railway over the Caledonian Canal. At the other end of the canal (near Fort William), the West Highland line also crosses the canal via swing bridge, this time just after Banavie railway station. This the tour guide did not say.
At Ardgay, a proportion of the tour group alighted. Whilst being a perfectly pleasant little Highland village, there is very little to see at Ardgay. 5 minutes further along the line is Culrain station, where one can visit the Carbisdale Castle. Before you ask, yes: this is something that I will be doing for the blog at some point in the future. Culrain is a station with a very low annual patronage (~400 per year).
I learnt from listening to people speak that the majority of the tour group were getting off at Helmsdale. When we arrived, I had just left the toilet, meaning I was stuck in the vestibule area whilst an entire carriage-load of people got off from one door. Given that each of them needed to hold on to something whilst stepping down from the train to the platform, this meant the train spent rather a long time waiting. This wasn't helped by them then standing around at the bottom of the footbridge, blocking anyone else from getting off the train. We were held up for another minute whilst the tour guide ran on to make sure he hadn't left anyone behind (which he had). Once they had been rescued we departed Helmsdale.
Helmsdale is the last stop before Kildonan. The journey from one station to the next is timed as 13 minutes.
14 minutes later, we slowed for the unprotected level crossing just south of the station. The guard came to me, and asked that I moved to a different set of doors. We came to a stand at the station, with the comment “sorry, I thought this set of doors would line up with the steps. There's going to be quite a big gap down to the platform”. She released the doors and I jumped down to the platform. I thanked her and waved to the driver, who had stuck his head out of his window. The train departed a few seconds later, and I was left at Kildonan. It was 13:33, and I had been travelling for nearly 7 hours.
Kildonan station is surrounded by the rolling hills and mountains of the Highlands, located near 2 small houses and a river, known as the Kildonan Burn. Kildonan Lodge is located a 10 minute walk away. There is an unprotected level crossing immediately south of the station. The station facilities themselves include a small shelter, some noticeboards, a help point, a set of plastic steps, some bike ranks, a bench, a few bushes and about 5000 blades of grass. A second platform complete with a rotting wooden shelter is still visible, although this is heavily overgrown. There is also a bin, which contained about 500ml of rainwater, and 2 CCTV cameras. This is the first station I have been to for this series in Scotland that has CCTV, despite every station so far having a notice which says that there is 24 hour CCTV monitoring.
The house right next to the station had a large cage which contained 3 dogs. They were very vocal whenever I moved, which meant that they were yapping away at regular intervals. Another bout of yapping caught my attention because I hadn't moved to cause it. Instead a load of sheep had appeared from across the bridge. I just managed to capture a picture of their retreat before they had entirely disappeared from view.
I spent about 45 minutes at the station, before the other service to Inverness arrived. I made sure I was not on the platform, as I did not wish to confuse the driver. I was not getting on this train. Instead, I filmed it from the other side of the level crossing, getting a friendly wave as the driver set off from the mandatory stop (as the level crossing is unprotected, all trains have to stop, sound the horn, and then proceed). Having watched the train wind its way down the valley back towards Helmsdale, I decided it was time to explore the local area.
Firstly, I set off south and west up a private road, hoping to reach a vantage point. However, I was ignorant of the main aspect of the Highlands: there's a lot of them. As soon as I had reached one high point, the road continued upwards. After about an hour, I reached the highest point of the road. I was still nowhere near as high as any of the other hills/mountains around. I sat down on an area of grass which wasn't as wet as other patches, and ate some of my pasta.
“Being truly alone is something that is hard to achieve, but I seemed to have done it. With the wind breezing through the grass and whistling through the valley, an unidentified bird flapping above, and the occasional hum of the electricity cables, I was properly alone for the first time in years. I had no phone signal (to be honest, I didn't check) and only my bag to keep my company. There weren't even any weird-looking sheep to stare at up at the top of this hill. It was like a scene from Hinterland, just before a character gets shot. Cue lots of camera angles of Richard Harrington staring wet-eyed into the middle distance because he's just been reminded of how awful his life is. Luckily, I wasn't in an episode of Silent Witness, so I was able to walk back down the hill to the station, and then onwards to Kildonan Lodge.” And that was Thought for the Day. It's now 5 minutes to 8, so time to have a random guest on the show to talk about something that is very serious and important, like bees dying or Syria, but because it isn't very interesting and not about England, we're going to try and squeeze it into the 6 seconds before the weather.
Kildonan Lodge is a rather imposing Victorian hunting lodge. Very little of it can be seen by the public as it is mostly surrounded by trees. It is also the home of the Suisgill Estate, owned by some tedious financial person from the City of London.
Beyond the house, the small road from the station joins an A-road. There is a sign which indicates the existence of a station and a postbox. That is it.
A group of loud people in cars arrived, and then sped off in the direction of the station, after standing around at the junction for a couple of minutes. I busied myself looking at a notice for road closure that hadn't been removed, despite it being related to works that happened in August 2016. After the annoyingly loud cars and their awful drivers had sodded off down the lane, I followed after them in a much more sedate manner (I was using my feet).
10 minute later, I was back at the station. I arrived at about 16:35, in time for the 16:48 departure north to Thurso and Wick. However, I was not boarding that train, as I needed to get south back to Edinburgh. I used the help point to enquire about the live running information of the 16:48. I was worried that, because of the early delays to services on the line, trains would still be running late. One of the problems with the Far North Line is that because it is single track, the moment any train is late, it makes recovering time very difficult as trains still have to wait at the same passing loops for the late-running service to pass. This makes all services late for the rest of the day. The 16:48 was indeed late, but only by 8 minutes. After it had passed through, I went back into the station area, took some more pictures and generally enjoyed the atmosphere of the station.
In this series, people don't often feature. Most of the time, I am at stations which don't see many people, hence my reason for visiting them. And, when they do turn up they are worthy of a sentence about how weird it is to see them at the station.
About 15 minutes before my train south was due to arrive, a person walked into the station. She greeted me and I greeted her back, as is polite. It turned out that she was a walker on a short break in nearby Helmsdale, who had used the station twice that week as a starting point for walks. I commented that I was surprised to see someone else at the station. She began to be surprised that I existed after I had explained more about how few people actually used the station. She told me of her journey that morning, where she had practically had to drag the guard out of their compartment in order to get them to sell her a ticket from Helmsdale to Kildonan, and how the on-board catering manager had had a slight panic when she asked where the guard was with 6 minutes to go until Kildonan. She had also done walks from other stations that I wish to visit in this series, such as various stations along the Conwy Valley Line. A period of idle chat about railways later, the train curved into view with a toot of the horn. I stuck my hand up, received a toot of acknowledgement, and we both watched as the train came to a halt. She said “hi” to the driver, before climbing (literally due to the height of the platform) into the door, followed by me. The doors were immediately closed (the train was running late), and we were off.
The Return Journey
After we departed Kildonan, the conductor came down the train to complete the ticket check. My friend from the station then asked how rare two independent travellers getting on at Kildonan was.
“Very rare, I've never had it before” was the response. “It's also my first time that I've set down and picked up the same person at Kildonan. You [me] were the person I dropped off earlier, weren't you?” I was, and I said so. We spent the next 12 minutes to Helmsdale discussing various bits about timetables, people and request stops before the conductor went to do her duty. The lasts words exchanged between myself and the walker from Kildonan were “Good luck getting to Edinburgh tonight!” and “Thanks”.
Inverness is classified as a small terminus station which means the minimum connection time is 5 minutes. My train from Kildonan was scheduled to arrive at Inverness at 20:10, with my departure south scheduled to depart at 20:15, a 5 minutes interchange time. Therefore, you can see why an 8 minute delay is a big problem. The conductor asked me if I was going beyond Inverness, to which I responded “yes”, showing my onward ticket to Edinburgh. (I had taken advantage of split ticketing, splitting at Inverness. This meant I paid £25 for the full journey instead of £43.70.) At Brora, we were 9 minutes late, giving us quite a bit of time to make up. As we rolled closer to Inverness, we stopped again at Dunrobin Castle to pick up the lady who had alighted from the train on the way from Inverness. We also made a request stop at Invershin, leading the conductor to comment “God, these request stops are killing me!” to the catering lady as we slowed to a halt. Despite all of this, as we departed Invergordon (about 45 minutes from Inverness) we were only 4 minutes late. The good thing about this service is that it skips 4 stations at the south of the line in order for there to be a connection with the 20:15 southbound service. That means making up time is more realistic. As we left Invergordon, the conductor phoned ahead to ask if the 20:15 could be held to allow 3 passengers to connect. “Usually, they would just put you on the sleeper, but the sleeper doesn't run on Saturday evenings” she had said to me earlier.
We were only 1 minute late at Dingwall, and were running on time from Muir of Ord to Inverness. I expressed my thanks to the conductor as I briskly departed her service at Inverness, walking round to the waiting 20:15 south to Glasgow. I had to change one last time in order to get to Edinburgh. Making up 9 minutes is quite something when one considers that the train made 3 request stops and the conductor told me that the timetable was very tight.
It was dark at this point, so I slept for quite a bit of the journey back to Edinburgh. I changed at Bridge of Allan, mainly because it was a station I hadn't been to yet. I boarded the train to Edinburgh, slept some more, and got off at Haymarket at 00:08, exactly 17 and a half hours after I had started my journey to Kildonan there. You can see why I was sleeping for a lot of the southbound journey. I got home 19 hours after I had left. I had a cup of tea and slept.
Having visited Kildonan, I can slightly see why HITRANS proposed closure. However, it still hasn't convinced me that the station should close. Even though there are not many houses nearby, the population within its “catchment area” is a bit bigger and the precedent that it would set for other request stops with a low patronage is much more worrying. Also, the proposed 4 minutes reduction in journey times is unrealistic and dependent on investment in replacing the current unprotected level crossing. No time at all would be saved if the station was simply closed because trains would still have to stop at the level crossing. And, the replacement level crossing would probably be some awful, ugly thing, such as the one that exists at Duirinish (see my blog entry on that station here). Really, I have to spend an entirely separate post on all the challenges that the Far North Line faces and what I would do. That is something I plan to do at some point. Also, is having a 21 hour day worth it? Yes. Totally. Best way to spend a very long day that I could think of.
The Looe Valley line is a branch line in Cornwall. It connects the main line at Liskeard to the southern Cornish Coast, at Looe. Between these two settlements, it follows the Looe River down the valley, passing nowhere else of any significance. Therefore, every intermediate station (Coombe Junction Halt, St Keyne Wishing Well Halt, Causeland and Sandplace) has a low patronage. Only one has an annual patronage of under 1000, but some of the others have been down that low in the past. All of them are within the bottom 100 stations in the country, and all of them are worth a visit. As I was in Cornwall for the day, I also decided to visit St Budeaux Ferry Road station in Plymouth, which is the least used station in the major town. It recorded just shy of 4000 visits, but was below 3000 a few years ago.
I have a little game for you. At each of the 4 Looe Valley Line stations (except Coombe Junction), there is a WiFi router. Try to spot them! I will reveal the locations at the end of this blog entry.
Journey 1: To Causeland
Pricing is a big influencing factor for me, especially when deciding dates and when to travel (if there is flexibility in a plan). As it is quite possible to do all the Looe Valley stations inside half a day, I a lot more flexibility than I am used to when planning visits to these least used stations. Having spent a great deal of time scouring the GWR website to see if any good advance deals were available, I stumbled across the Wednesday night Night Riviera sleeper service, which was down at a very reasonable price. I set up a plan, checked the price of the return journey, which was also very reasonable, and went ahead with the bookings.
I arrived at Paddington at 11pm, and fell onto the sleeper. I've only travelled on this service once before, and that was going to Penryn for university visiting reasons. Despite being in a seated area, I had a very comfortable journey that time. Boarding the sleeper this time, I was disappointed. The rolling stock and interior has been refurbished, which means that the comfortable 1+2 seating has been ripped out, and replaced with 2+2 rigid, leather tat. I had a very poor and uncomfortable sleep. The air conditioning was also on for some reason, meaning that I had to wear 2 jumpers and my raincoat to stop myself from shivering.
We arrived at Liskeard at quarter past 6. I got off, and went into the waiting room, where I sat for an hour until I decided it was time to go to the Looe Branch platform and get my train to the first shack of the day: Causeland.
Liskeard is quite an odd station. Despite having 3 platforms, the Looe Branch platform (platform 3) is located across a road from the main station. This is unique as a station model, and not one I have ever come across before. The Looe branch platform has also been kept in the past, with various old, and old-style GWR signs and other pieces of memorabilia dotted along the platform.
It had started raining at this point, so I was glad that my train soon arrived. I boarded, and we waited the few minutes until it next departed south. We did, 1 minute late, and began the journey south to Causeland. I was the only passenger in my carriage. 2 other people were in the other coach (it was a 2 coach train). The guard soon came up, I showed my ticket and railcard and asked if he could stop at Causeland. 15 minutes later, we pulled up at the station, and I got off, waving to the guard as the train departed again for Looe.
As the train departed, I surveyed the station. Causeland is a cute little thing buried amongst plants, a stream and all in a valley. This makes the entire place very secluded. Furthermore, there are no nearby houses, so one has the area entirely to oneself, as I did. It is also very well preserved, with fresh paint, old GWR-style buildings and signs and baskets of flowers. The facilities include a shelter, a help point, a grit box, two flower boxes, a set of signs and two bicycle racks.
As I admired the station, the train from Looe returned. In order to prevent confusion (the driver thinking that I want to get back on), I hid behind a sign and filmed it passing from there.
The walk from Causeland to Sandplace is about 30 minutes along a country lane. A few tiny settlements (of 3 houses maximum) are situated along the road. There are also a couple of bridges, which I used as a location to film the Looe Branch train continuing its shuttles up and down the branch line.
Despite being the 2nd least used station of the 4 along the line, Sandplace is the least remote of any of them. It is located around the bend of the main road into Looe. In fact, Sandplace is also served by a bus route. There is also a little village (called Sandplace) just to the south of the station.
The station itself is nestled rather nicely just by the bridge which takes the main road over the railway. It has many of the same facilities as Causeland, but the overall feel is of being much less secluded than Causeland was. The major thing of note at the station was the birds nest located in one of the nooks of the shelter.
Whilst I was at the station, a man in a GWR/Network Rail van parked in the bus stop area near the station. Yes, it was the day that all the Looe Valley line stations were to be visited and maintained. He arrived with a leaf blower and proceeded to clear the platform of various bits of dust and leaves. He left, and then returned shortly afterwards with a watering can and some other bits with which to tidy up the flower pots and clean other bits of the station (such as the large quantity of bird droppings which had accumulated under the nest). I don't see why watering flowers literally minutes after a few hours of rain was required, but whatever management wants, I suppose.
Journey 2: To St Keyne
The original plan was to board a northbound service at 10:49 to my next shack, which is St Keyne Wishing Well Halt. However, because I like to spend quite a long time at each station before boarding, I was there well in time for the service southbound the Looe to pass me, before coming back up. Despite making no gesture whatsoever to the driver signalling that I wished to request the stop, the driver stopped. I mouthed and gestured that I was going in the opposite direction. The man who was maintaining the station also came up to ask me what was going on. I explained that I was going north. At this point the guard also joined in and suggested that I just get on anyway and enjoy a free ride to Looe and back. So, here are some bonus pictures of the terminus of the branch, Looe:
Once we had left Looe going northbound, I requested St Keyne from the guard, and we stopped there. I got off in the same manner as before, thanking the guard and then surveying the station.
St Keyne Wishing Well Halt
As you now expect, St Keyne is littered with well-preserved old-style GWR facilities, except for the help point and metal bike racks. It is also about a mile from St Keyne itself, meaning that the only buildings around are farm, or ex-farm. The man who had been maintaining Sandplace arrived, so I vacated the station area to allow him to do his work.
But, why the “Wishing Well” suffix? Well, there is a well nearby. The St Keyne Well. I took the mile walk to it (it isn't in the town, instead it is located a small crossroads ½ a mile to the south of it).
Having looked at the well, I walked back to St Keyne, continued taking pictures of the shuttling Looe Branch service and lounging around on the platform, admiring the station and surroundings and taking pictures of the shuttle passing a few times.
Eventually, the train I wanted to catch arrived. I flagged it down using my best arm, it stopped and I boarded. Or, went to board, before the guard (a different one this time) asked me to come a specific set of doors. I complied, and boarded. She verbally checked my ticket and then I proceeded to a seat. We arrived in Liskeard 15 minutes later.
I decided that I would walk from Liskeard to Coombe Junction, as it was only 15 minutes walk away. This proved to be the right decision. It is downhill all the way, sometimes very steeply. It would not be fun to walk in the opposite direction.
Coombe Junction Halt
Coombe is the only station on the line not to be served by the majority of services, and the only one to have an annual patronage below 1000. At the moment, it stands at ~200 per year, although this is the highest on record, with it rarely peaking above 50 people per year. Only a couple of trains per day that skip the request stops of St Keyne, Causeland and Sandplace, but all save for 4 services a day (2 in each direction, Monday to Saturday only) avoid Coombe Junction. Despite including the suffix “halt” (which only 2 stations in the whole of the UK do, St Keyne Wishing Well Halt being the other), Coombe Junction Halt is not a request stop. This does not make sense.
Unlike all the other stations on the line, it is in a poor state of repair. There are at least 3 different shades of cream on the rotting and very small shelter, no flowers and only about half the signage as compared to the other stations.
The station is a junction, because this is where the Looe Branch services reverse. They have to do so in order to negotiate the steep gradients from Liskeard down to valley level. The reason that most services do not call at Coombe Junction Halt is because they reverse at the set of points (Coombe Junction Ground Frame), which is about 100 metres up the line from the station. I spent more than an hour filming the reversal process, which will be explained later in this blog post.
The train back to Liskeard arrived at Coombe Junction Halt. It not being a request stop, the guard had to get out anyway. As she did so, I approached, and she jumped slightly. I don't think she was expecting anyone to actually be getting on or off at the station. She checked my ticket as the train set off again (having reversed at the station), and we soon arrived into Liskeard.
Journey 5: To St Budeaux
At Liskeard, I had an hour or so before my train to St Budeaux arrived. It was at this point that my phone and portable charger ran out of power. However, this isn't that much of a loss to the blog. The local service arrived into platform 1 at Liskeard, shunted round to platform 2, and then allowed passengers to board. It is one of very few services that serve St Budeaux Ferry Road and Menheniot stations. Despite the latter being advertised as a request stop, the train stopped there as if it was a conventional station. Nobody boarded or alighted. We then stopped at St Germans and Saltash, before going over the fabulous King Albert Bridge. Shortly after, the train arrived at St Budeaux Ferry Road.
St Budeaux Ferry Road
There is very little to say about this station. I got off, along with one other person. 3 minutes later, a train in the other direction also stopped, allowing another person to alight. Each platform is fairly grubby, both have fairly standard shelters, the metal and plastic sort that appear all over the country, and nothing is particularly well-maintained. Even the shelters have had half their benches removed and none of their plastic panels remain. Rubbish is scattered behind everything, and the slate walls are crumbling somewhat.
The station is located literally across the road from St Budeaux Victoria Road (see Google Maps extraction below). Despite their different names, both of them are located on Wolseley Road. I can't even find a Ferry Road in the area.
As one service per day from Liskeard continues to Gunnislake (the end of the branch line that St Budeaux Victoria Road serves), there is an opportunity to travel from one station to the other by train. However, it is not possible to buy a direct ticket from Ferry Road to Victoria Road (I used various websites and even tried on the phone, but no ticket was available). My assumption is that a guard would sell anyone wishing to make such a silly journey a return from St Budeaux stations to Plymouth.
Journey 6: Back Home
Despite St Budeaux being in Plymouth, the advance ticket I was sold meant that I had to travel back via Liskeard. So, I boarded the 18:25 service back there, changed, and found myself on the last service of the day into London (apart from the sleeper).
At Exeter St Davids, we were delayed by 26 minutes due to an incident up the line at Tiverton Parkway. This was cleared, and I had hoped that we would make up some time. This was not to happen. We continued to loose time, finally arriving into London Paddington over 40 minutes late. This was just late enough for me to have missed the last tube and rail services home, so I had to negotiate the night bus network. I finally arrived home at 2am. The worst thing about all of this is that I could not claim for compensation, as GWR long distance services operate by a 60 minute rule, not the usual 30 minute. I was most annoyed.
The Operation of the Looe Valley Line
The Looe branch departs Liskeard going north, before looping around and down the valley to Coombe Junction. It then has to change direction in order to continue to Looe.
It is controlled using the token system. IE: The guard/driver has to obtain a token from the signaller in order to have permission to travel on a particular part of the line (usually from passing loop to passing loop, although not always). The token sections for this line are Liskeard to Coombe Junction Ground Frame, and Coombe Junction Ground Frame to Looe. There is also a freight only line that continues beyond Coombe Junction (the point of reversal for passenger trains) and continues to Moorswater Quarry. However, I am unsure that this is still used, certainly with any frequency.
The Ground Frame has to be set to rest in the Liskeard direction to release and return any tokens. Therefore, the train has to stop twice each time. In order to explain this properly, I have included steps and pictures for each direction (both to and from Liskeard).
Solutions to the Game
Here are the Wi-Fi routers at each of the stations which had them:
St Keyne Wishing Well Halt:
(Yes. I know that was a hard one.)
Notes about St Budeaux
St Budeaux has many bus routes, and even bus stops right outside the stations which are used by a frequent bus service, but the train service is very poor. This is why the patronage for Ferry Road (and to a lesser extent, Victoria Road) is so low. Every train I saw at Ferry Road was used by at least one person (most by two, some by three). But, because the service is so infrequent, people choose the bus or another means of transport. The patronage could be increased by a more frequent train service, but I doubt that this will happen.
A Final Point of Irony
Despite this being a railway trip to Cornwall, at no point did I buy a Cornish Pasty, despite there being a seemingly endless supply of them at every railway station in the country.
Bordesley is located one stop south of Birmingham Moor Street on the Snow Hill Lines, which is still very much in Birmingham. But, the general service is one train per week in one direction only: a proper parliamentary. Despite the very low level of service, over 15,000 passengers were recorded using the station last year, working out as nearly 300 passengers per train. This is a very odd situation for a station to be in. That puts Bordesley outside the least used stations proper list by a significant number. Clearly, there is something that is wrong here, so an investigation was required.
The only train of the week runs northbound on a Saturday, arriving at Bordesley at 13:36. I decided that the best thing to do would be to alight from it and then explore the station. I worked my way across London to Marylebone, and boarded a Chiltern service to take me most of the way to Birmingham. The journey planner and the route of my advance ticket was very weird. Instead of changing at Solihull, and again at Tyseley (because the only service of the week originates at Whitlocks End), I had to go all the way into Moor Street, back out to Tyseley, and then back to Bordesley. I effectively did a triple-back. A map will show how mad this route is. The even bigger thing was changing at Tyseley instead of Small Heath, given that Small Heath is closer to Birmingham than Tyseley.
On the Chiltern service to Birmingham, a man in a suit, trainers and with a cycling rucksack got on and at opposite me with his similarly weirdly dressed child. The suit and trainer is not a look I have ever understood. Especially when the person clearly doesn't run due to their size. They sat opposite me for a mercifully short amount of time, alighting at Warwick Parkway having boarded at Banbury.
The train arrived in Moor Street, late, and I crossed over to another platform in order to board the 2nd of 3 trains. I changed at Tyseley without incident, and stood by the doors for the short journey back up to Bordesley.
Having passed it twice in the past 30 minutes, it was third time lucky as the 13:36 service pulled into Bordesley. I was one of two people to get off at the station, with one person boarding. The other passenger to alight walked towards the exit, then away from it, then back towards it and out of the station. I was left to admire (used in its loosest possible form) the station.
Bordesley station is a very barren island platform. It has some lights, some signs, a help point, an exit and a barren concrete waiting hut which smelt of urine.
Various frequent errors and fun bits popped up: There was a smartcard reader, which sees virtually no usage whatsoever. The signs advertised services to Shirley and Dorridge, which is weird as the southbound platform sees no trains in normal service. The opening of the hut was also to the southbound platform (the platform face that sees no trains in normal service). I say normal service, because the station becomes a lot more busy at match days when Birmingham City play home games. Trains do stop at the otherwise unused platform at these times. The stadium is visible from the station, although it is not as prominent as the graffiti.
The normal paintwork at the station was still slightly sticky, I assume because it had been touched up recently.
I sat on the platform, resting against a pole, getting occasional toots from passing trains as I filmed/photographed them.
The Journey Home
After the service that would form my train home from Birmingham Moor Street passed, I decided that it would be best to walk the mile from Bordesley to Moor Street so that I would be there in plenty of time. I had spent just over 90 minutes at the station.
The walk was mainly about negotiating back-streets through decaying industrial areas and warehouses, being glad that it was a Saturday afternoon and not 2am on a Friday morning. It was exactly the sort of area which journalists visit after a “well-loved cornerstone of the neighbourhood was brutally stabbed in the early hours of Sunday morning”. I didn't see many people, or indeed weapons, and arrived at Moor Street 25 minutes later. I still had more than half an hour until my train departed, but it was there and unlocked, so I sat on it, enjoying the fact that I had a 4 seat area with table to myself.
A feature of city railways appears to be that the station one stop out from a major terminus is a lot less well-used than the majority of other stations on the line. Bordesley is not an isolated case. Elsewhere in Birmingham, there is Adderley Park and Water Orton (neither of which have quite as low a patronage or quite as infrequent a service). Meanwhile, Manchester has Ardwick and Ashburys, with the former being in the least used stations list proper.
The reason for their lack of patronage is a combination of not being near many houses, and any people wanting to use them being put off by their very limited service. Bordesley has a bus stop right outside the station with a number of bus routes serving the station. Meanwhile, the train service would be, at best, every 30 minutes. Given the choice, most people would choose the bus because it is much more frequent and therefore more convenient, given that there is a major railway station close by which one can get a train to practically anywhere from. The only reason Bordesley's patronage is so high for the level of service is because of the extra trains layed on when there is a football match.
Author - Felix