I feel as if I have neglected my favourite part of the UK railway network this year. The only downside to spending a lot of my summer trundling between Edinburgh and Aviemore to volunteer on the Strathspey Railway was that I didn't really feel like doing a 3rd or 4th weekly trip up the Highland Main Line to get to the North Highland Lines. The Kyle Line runs east-west from Inverness (west) to Kyle of Lochalsh (east). Although the settlements it links are fairly important (certainly in that part of the world), there is a lot of 'nothingness' in between. This 'nothingness' is essentially brilliant scenery and a few small settlements. That means there are a number of very small stations along the route which see few passengers. One of these is Achnashellach, a request stop between Achnasheen and Strathcarron which sees between 800 and 1000 people per year.
I didn't have to get up as stupidly early as I normally have to for these trips. A train at the reasonable time of half past 9 took me up to Perth. I had been monitoring this for quite a while, as there had been problems on that line during the morning because of a broken down train. Luckily, the expected 15 minute delay did not happen, and the train arrived at Perth 3 minutes early.
Of course, while I had been on the train, a signalling fault had developed on the Highland Main Line at Carrbridge. Journey Check stated that the estimated fix time was midday. My train was due to pass through the area almost an hour after that, so I decided that my train was in the clear. Of course, I was wrong. That signalling fault meant that all the trains on the line were running out of course. Because the Highland Main Line is mostly single track, we had to wait at Stanley for 20 minutes for another train to pass us. We could have passed at Dunkeld & Birnam, but a rail had broken there.
3 faults and a near 30 minute delay meant by 11 minute change at Inverness was not going to happen. I spoke to the conductor, and he said that he would communicate with his control so that they could decide what would happen. 3 other people also wanted to change onto the 13:35 Kyle service at Inverness. As the train progressed, time was made up and then lost again.
Control decided that “a decision on whether to hold the Kyle service would be made at Moy [a passing loop 15 minutes south of Inverness]. If the train wasn't held, ScotRail would provide a taxi to Achnasheen [one of the stations on the Kyle Line] and we would be able to board the train there (the road being faster than the train).”
The train wasn't held, and the 4 of us got into the large taxi for the sprint to Achnasheen. Just over an hour later, we all arrived at the station, and were 12 minutes ahead of the train. The train was also slightly late. Achnasheen, although being one of the bigger and busier stations on the Kyle Line, has some impressive views.
The train arrived, and 3 of us got on. The 4th was only going as far as Achnasheen anyway. I made sure I requested Achnashellach from the conductor as she came through. 19 minutes later, the train pulled up at the request stop. The automatic announcement system gleefully announced “We are now approaching Achnashellach. This is a request stop.” I've always had a problem with this last sentence, mainly because it is the first time that the system specifically states that the station in question is a request stop. Any passenger would have no time to alert a member of staff that they wished to get off. Guards on the route make up for the shortcomings of the computer by asking people where they are getting off.
Back to the journey, and my train had arrived at the station. I got off, thanking the conductor. The train departed, and I was left to look around.
Yes, despite all the infrastructure failures attempting to prevent me from reaching my destination, I was at Achnashellach only 5 minutes late.
The station itself is nestled in a wood, with only a few farm buildings for company. It is a simple station, although it has quite a long platform. There are a large number of signs clustered at one end of the platform (by the level crossing) and a simple shelter in the middle. That's about it.
I had almost 3 hours before my train back to Inverness. I decided to have a walk down to a nearby Loch (Loch Dughaill) and observe it. On previous trips I have had a lot of enjoyment looking at Lochs. I was forced to spend 15 minutes walking along a country road to get there, but this walk was worth it. The pictures don't quite do it justice, but here they are anyway.
I spent an hour looking at the Loch, eating the last bits of my lunch, and talking to myself. It was lovely to be in proper solitude outside for the first time in a ages. I made sure to let off plenty of steam.
Of course, being November in Scotland, the sun had set before I had realised. The walk back along the road felt a lot shorter (because I knew where I was going), but I was kept on my toes because of the speed of the traffic and the light levels. I made it to the turning up to the station without any difficulties, and spend the remaining hour failing to take pictures of the station because of the darkness.
The Journey Home
The return train approached on time. I flagged it down, getting a toot in response. I boarded, and watched some stuff on my phone for the nearly 2 hour return journey to Inverness. I would love to have looked out of the window, but it was pitch black outside at this point.
I had ordered a pizza on the train, so when I got to Inverness I would only have to take a 5 minute walk to the shop, pick up the pizza, and then go back to the station. I always feel very pleased with myself when I'm able to do this. The Inverness to Glasgow train I boarded was lightly loaded (as normal), so I didn't annoy too many people by eating said pizza.
We lost a bit of time down the line waiting for late running trains coming the other way to pass us. The 15 minute delay leaving Perth was a problem, because I had a 6 minute change at Stirling for my train back to Edinburgh. Luckily, the guard made sure that the last train of the day back to the capital was held for us. I arrived back at Edinburgh at 20 past midnight. I was tired, but it had been worth it to actually visit Achnashellach.
For the record, the Strathspey Railway is brilliant. Visit it.
I was actually surprised that I managed to get to Achnashellach. The quantity of problems that were encountered (failed train at North Queensferry, broken rail at Dunkeld & Birnam, signalling failure at Carrbridge) en-route meant it was actually amazing that I got there. Serious credit to all the staff who kept stuff moving.
I don't really have anything to say about Achnashellach that I haven't already said before in other posts. Although it isn't used by many people, it is a very useful station for those that live in the area, and probably provides a lifeline for the rural communities nearby. One of the sad things about the huge cuts in the railways in the 1960s was the number of small places who lost their public transport altogether. I'm glad this isn't the case for the parts of the Highlands served by rail.
Springfield is another minor station located on an otherwise busy main line. This time, the line in question is the Edinburgh to Aberdeen line. It serves the village of Springfield, and not much else. Along with the small population, it also gets a very limited service. Only 5 trains per day stop (2 up, 3 down) for 6 days of the week. There is no Sunday service.
Along with the limited service, there is also no convenient gap between services. Both the evening services call at 6pm (northbound at 17:59, southbound at 18:00). The next one is the 23:21 service to Dundee. Luckily, there are 3 bus routes, which work to give 2 buses per hour to Ladybank (south) or Cupar and St Andrews (north). I decided to get the train out from Edinburgh to Springfield, then take a bus to Ladybank and take a train back to Edinburgh from there.
I don't often travel during rush hours because the trains are crowded and tickets (often) more expensive. However, with the university and railway timetables the way they are, I had to get a train just after 5pm to get to Springfield from Edinburgh. It was quite crowded, although not as rammed as I'm used to down in London. It thinned out quite a lot, and after Kirkcaldy I was able to spread slightly.
The train was on time, and I was the only person who got off at the station. There were quite a few people on the opposite platform waiting for the train back into Edinburgh. This was slightly late. I watched it depart before I surveyed the station.
The first thing that hit me was the absolute stench of manure. It was very overpowering, to the point where I had to bring up my polo neck and use it as a mask to protect my nose. The station itself is quite an odd one. It has the normal 2 platforms, linked with a footbridge. There are signs, departure boards, a smartcard reader, benches, a bin, and a shelter on one platform. The other platform has shelter provided by a canopy from the old station house. This is now a private house, the owner of which closed their curtains when I was walking around taking pictures of the station. I hope they knew why I was taking pictures, and didn't think I was some creepy old thing in a long coat.
The weirdness comes from the platform. For whatever reason, the up platform has a section that is much lower than the rest of it (the section that runs alongside the house). Therefore, trains can't stop at that bit; instead they have to run all the way to the other end. I'm not quite sure why the station was designed like that, but there we go. The platforms are therefore slightly staggered. Although they are roughly the same length, the ends do not map onto each other in the way that one expects.
Signs continue to be a problem. This time, they suggest that one can get direct trains to Aberdeen and the North. Trains only continue as far as Arbroath. There are no trains beyond there to Aberdeen.
It was getting very cold, and I had forgotten my gloves. Darkness was also drawing in. This is all normal for Scotland in October. Therefore, once I had taken all the pictures I needed, I escaped to a nearby bus stop, as I realised that there was one due within 5 minutes. I'd rather leave than hang around for another hour. I boarded the bus, paid the rather expensive fare (£3.60 for the single) and settled down for the short journey to Ladybank.
By rail, Springfield is 3 miles and 22 chains from Ladybank (there 80 chains in a mile). Because of the way the roads work, the shortest distance between the two is 5 miles by road. The bus route makes this distance even longer. I've mentioned before how mad bus routes can be (see my posts on Polesworth and Hopton Heath), and the route 94/94A also makes a healthy detour via Kettlebridge and Kingskettle (an additional 1.5 miles). Not the worst (another bus route, the 64 goes all the way to Letham, and increases the distance to 8.5 miles), but slightly anxiety inducing as I tracked our progress, only to see us “missing” the turning up to Ladybank.
Anyway, the bus reached Ladybank station, and I got off (along with another human being). I navigated my way over to the Edinburgh platform and boarded my train home, making sure I avoided the family with multiple children and even more suitcases who also wanted to get on.
Spingfield is one of those stations which I thought would be quite well used. I did not expect to be the only person to get off the rush hour train because I thought that the majority of the annual patronage would be commuters from Fife to Edinburgh and back. Perhaps the fact that the village gets 4 buses per hour (2 to Cupar & St Andrews, 2 to Ladybank) demonstrates that, if the village railway station was to get a broadly clockface hourly service, it would be used better. From a timetabling perspective, it may work to give Springfield a bi-hourly service, where the hourly Edinburgh to Arbroath service serves Springfield on the hours that it doesn't serve Monifieth (another station further down the line with a low-ish annual patronage that gets a bi-hourly service). Like with so many least used stations that actually serve a reasonably sized settlement, the lack of service throttles the patronage.
Acklington is one of 3 stations on the Northumberland stretch of the East Coast Main Line (ECML) that only have 3 trains per day. About 2 years ago, I visited Chathill (the terminus of the services), but Acklington is the least used station, both in Northumberland and on the entire ECML. It was one of the few minor stations on the ECML to survive both pre-Beeching and Beeching cuts. However, its service was cut substantially, due to electrification and associated faster InterCity services, and rolling stock shortages.
Although two return trains run (one in the morning, one in the evening), the northbound morning service does not stop at Acklington. Thus, the only way I could visit it by train was using the northbound evening service, and then picking up the southbound evening service on the way back. This suited me well; although I am prepared to wake up very early for the railways, I generally like a lie in. I didn't lie in all the way to my 4pm train because I'm not a hibernating brown bear. I'm also not an awake brown bear, or a brown bear of any sort. Just in case you were confused.
With tickets that were not valid via Newcastle, I had to get off at Morpeth. With apologies to all for bringing up politics, this was the notice that greeted me on the ticket machine at the station.
Sharpie written political commentary aside (those last two words used in their loosest possible sense), I had a train to catch. I switched platforms and sat for an hour on a bench, occasionally managing to get semi-competent pictures of the passing trains.
I continue to be amused at the fairly awful pronunciation of places by computers. This time, it was Alnmouth's turn to be called “Olma” for no reason. I have heard many variations (Alan-mouth, Alnn-mouth, An-muff etc.) but never “Olma”. (For those interested, I think the way to pronounce “Alnmouth” is “Alnn-muth” - no “Alan” and not emphasising the “mouth”.)
Linguistics (if this even counts) aside, my train arrived late and managed to regurgitate the entire population of Newcastle from its 2 coaches. I got on, had my ticket checked by the conductor, and observed passengers getting off at the other 2 stations that see such a limited service (Pegswood and Widdrington). A handful of passengers got off at each. I was surprised that 2 other people got off with me at Acklington. They left the station quickly, and I stayed to have a look round.
As would be expected, the facilities are fairly basic. There are all the normal signs and lights and a bin. The stationhouse on the northbound platform is now somebody's home, and there is a shelter on the southbound platform which is the same as the one that was at Chathill: small, wooden, and rather sweet.
The top third of the northbound platform is pointless because the yellow line is so far back that it makes actually walking on it nigh on impossible.
It's also fun to play a game of “spot the way out” on the southbound side. I don't think the signs give too much away.
The way from one platform to another is via the road bridge. This is actually a fair distance because the entrance to the northbound side is at the other end of the platform. There's about 200m of walking to get from one platform to the other, 150m of it on road. The village is located half a kilometre to the east. I didn't visit it.
With the pictures and exploration finished, I spent the remaining 20 minutes in the shelter, popping my head out when trains passed. Like the top third of the northbound platform, the yellow line comes so close to the shelter that walking along the platform behind it becomes difficult. Like a tightrope, but with unenforced gravity.
My train back to Morpeth arrived. It was the same one as before.
The conductor checked my ticket, but queried my route (I don't think they were aware where Haymarket was). Once I explained, they ticked the ticket off with their pen and went back to their other duties. Nobody else got on or off at Widdrington or Pegswood on the way back.
Morpeth arrived and I changed. I didn't have too much of a wait before my train back north to Edinburgh. When I got on, quite a few got off, and I had an entire carriage to myself. Or, I thought I did. A rather imposing walking cane accompanied me. I reported it to the train manager when she came around, and she took it to her office.
The rest of the journey did not involve any other walking sticks.
Acklington station was never going to be used well, but its patronage will still be throttled somewhat by the infrequent service and the odd destination in the north. Few people will want to go to Chathill, and even though one can change at Alnmouth, the connections to Berwick aren't great from there. One of the major gripes of railway users in Northumberland is that, although there are quite a few trains from Newcastle to Edinburgh, most of them only stop at one or two stations between the two cities. Thus, there is a very infrequent service between the various stations in Northumberland. There is no train from Alnmouth to Berwick-upon-Tweed from 10am to 4pm; no train from Morpeth to Alnmouth for over 6 hours (06:38 to 12:57); and no train from Morpeth to Berwick for nearly 7 hours (11:51 to 18:49). If Northern could use electric rolling stock capable of 100mph, then there could well be space in the timetable for an hourly or bi-hourly local service from Newcastle to Berwick-upon-Tweed calling at all the stations en-route. Some enhancements are planned, but they are still only in the planning stage and could well be pulled/deferred.
The Cardiff Valley Lines are a number of railway lines which run from Cardiff up the Welsh Valleys around the city. Given the commuter status of the lines, and the continued need for additional capacity due to the large demand for the railway, it is surprising that a least used station would be found. Gilfach Fargoed sits just south of Bargoed on the Rhymney Line. It was used by just over 5000 people in the past year, a figure which is very high for the station (usually it manages around 3,500 people per year). So, although not in the least used stations list proper, it does have a patronage significantly lower than other stations in the area. Thus, I decided it warranted a visit.
From Edinburgh, the journey is not a complicated one, but it is long. I already had cause to visit Cardiff, so I decided to go earlier than I needed to in order to visit Gilfach Fargoed.
The now normal alarm for a 06:52 train woke me up. I had quite a full rucksack to lug down to the station, but a much longer train journey where I didn't have to carry it. My first train was to Crewe. I do like travelling on the West Coast Main Line (WCML), but I generally don't like doing it too far south. There are some fantastic bits of scenery along the whole route, but the Lake District and Borders section from Edinburgh/Motherwell to Lancaster is the best. South of Lancaster, the fabulousness of the scenery is punctuated by some utter abominations of towns and cities.
Crewe, or to give it its full name, Change at Crewe, arrived. I changed, and boarded the next train to Cardiff, running via Shrewsbury and Hereford. Providing a 2 car train for a Manchester to Carmarthen service is a seriously bad idea. The combination of long-distance and local passenger flows lead to a crowded service. All the seats were taken and quite a few people had to stand. Not fun.
But, 3 and a half hours later, I was in Cardiff. It was late lunch and I had 30 minutes before my train to Gilfach departed. Gilfach has a regular hourly service. That may sound good for a least used station, but there are 4 trains per hour which run on the line in question.
A Pacer turned up to take me to Gilfach. The train wasn't very crowded, but then the real crowds join the train at rush hour. That's why Transport for Wales have felt the need to introduce class 37 loco-hauled sets of mark 2 coaches (for non-rail enthusiasts: 60s locomotives and slam-door coaches) to deal with the rush hour passengers. Anyway, the journey up the valley was a rather good one. I hadn't expected the Welsh Valleys to be so lovely (I apologise to the people of the Valleys for underestimating their local area). It was also quite a long slog up, given the frequent stopping and the 13 mile distance.
The train departed Pengam (the stop before Gilfach) and the conductor came down asking if anyone wanted to get off at Gilfach Fargoed. I was the only one. She asked me to come to the front set of doors because of the short platform. Not even a whole coach could fit on the platform. As I got off, I thanked her, watched the train depart, and then looked at the tiny station.
The platforms are 16 metres long. This is not long enough for the coaches of most trains (these tend to be 20 – 23 metres long). The facilities are fairly basic, as one can imagine. Both platforms has electronic departure boards with the comically awful automatic announcements that I am used to from Welsh stations. Yes, Ebbw Vale Parkway is pronounced “eee bee vee”, and one doesn't actually have to pronounce “Ystrad Mynach” at all. Just go up to a Welsh person, say nothing, and they'll immediately understand that you mean “Ystrad Mynach”. There are also the normal station signs, ramps up to the road bridge, and a shelter on each platform. These shelters look as if they have been set on fire numerous times.
Just over 30 minutes later, a train back to Cardiff arrived. I decided that I had seen everything I needed to, so I got on it.
Gilfach Fargoed is arguably one of the cutest little stations I have visited. If it was well-maintained with little wooden shelters and a couple of baskets of flowers, I'd properly love it. But it isn't, so I don't.
I'm not sure if there is a way to boost patronage for the station. Bargoed has quite a healthy patronage, so stopping 2 trains per hour may encourage people who live further south to use Gilfach rather than Bargoed. The length of the platforms poses some problems too. The loco-hauled commuter trains that I mentioned earlier can't stop at Gilfach Fargoed because of the short platforms. In fact, Gilfach Fargoed has a gap of 90 minutes between trains from Cardiff from 16:43 to 18:18 (16:01 to 17:31 from Cardiff). That does leave a gap at the start of the PM peak where the station gets no service. Although there are departures at 07:04 and 07:18 to Cardiff in the AM peak, there isn't a departure from 07:18 to 08:18, which leaves a gap of arrivals into Cardiff between 8am and 9am. A train from Gilfach arriving into Cardiff at about 08:30 would be very useful.
Other than the length of the platforms, quality of facilities and level of service, Gilfach Fargoed is a perfect station.
Yes, in December 2017 I visited both Barry Links and Golf Street in the dark, took some awful photos, and didn't actually get the train to or from Golf Street. Such was the quality of the blog nearly 2 years ago.
The Edinburgh to Aberdeen line has quite a collection of little stations, especially between Dundee and Carnoustie. Of the 5 stations between the 2, 3 have an annual patronage that regularly falls below 1000 per year, 2 often fall below 100. Until 2019 they were served by only 1 train per day each way, but this was doubled to two per day at the May timetable change. This makes it possible to visit all three of them. I chose the evening because I have no way to get up to Carnoustie for a 6am departure from Golf Street. The only problem is that the evening departures come 40 minutes apart, which is tight for a proper visit of a least used station (I tend to allow at least an hour per station as a rule). However, I'd already visited Barry Links properly, so I allowed myself to do it in the 40 minutes.
I used 7 tickets for the journey, which required a lot of patience with the fairly awful touch-screen ticket machines that exist at Haymarket station (and indeed most other stations in the UK). But, I completed the transaction with plenty of time to spare, and decided to board a delayed service which took me as far as Dundee. It was a very crowded LNER service from London, so my timeliness (and their lack of it) didn't pay off that much. Instead of hanging around at Haymarket, I hung around at Dundee station, the one which had its station piano smashed by some absolute planks. I stayed on platform 4 for my train to Monifieth.
Monifieth is another station that lies along the Edinburgh to Aberdeen line which has a low patronage (below 10,000 per year). This doesn't qualify it for the list proper, and it is not of sufficient interest for it to be covered as part of the blog (frequent readers may remember stations such as Chathill, Angel Road and other stations which have an annual patronage well above the 1000 per year limit have been covered due to limited service or other reasons of interest – see individual blog posts for justifications). Balmossie station is about 1 mile south of Monifieth. The walk between the two is a very pleasant one: a tarmac cycle and walkers route runs along the side of the Tay estuary.
Of the three, Balmossie is the most inconvenient to navigate. The platforms are staggered: the down platform (towards Carnoustie and Arbroath) is directly east of the footbridge, but the up platform (towards Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh) is further east along the line. One has to walk up a mud track after crossing the footbridge to get to it. Although the platforms are pretty much wooden skeletons, they have all the basic facilities: benches, signs, bins and electronic departure boards. The up platform even has a wooden shelter (the luxury).
I had about an hour at the station, which I used trying to take pictures of the outside of the station without too many locals questioning my sanity, and taking pictures of the trains which passed occasionally.
My train onwards to Barry Links was showing as on-time, but was held at Dundee for a late-running express to Aberdeen. That meant it arrived 15 minutes late. Nobody got off, but I got on (slightly obviously).
Barry Links Station
7 minutes and 1 intermediate stop (Monifieth – remember that one?) later, I was deposited on the Barry Links platform along with 2 other people. The train departed, and the level crossing barriers remained down for another 5 minutes as other trains passed through. Some of the cyclists waiting at the barriers were getting quite irate by the end of it, something which I had no sympathy for as they could have used the bridge. They didn't and must have lost about 10 minutes.
Slight idiots aside, Barry Links station has 2 normal platforms, none of that skeletal stuff that Balmossie and (spoiler alert) Golf Street have. Its shelter is also an upgrade on Balmossie's: some metal and see-through plastic affair on both platforms. That must mean Barry Links has a higher patronage. But, it doesn't. Barry Links has been the least used station in Scotland for years (alternating with Breich) and has at times been the least used in the whole of the UK (it was for 2018). The signs, bins and electronic departure boards exist as expected. Except they don't. Someone has managed to get the departure boards the wrong way round, so my train onwards to Golf Street was advertised on the wrong platform. Top marks to Transport Scotland.
The 40 minute wait had been eaten down to 25 minutes with the delay, but increased to over 30 because the Edinburgh to Arbroath service that I was to catch to Golf Street was 6 minutes late. That meant I saw a few trains passing through.
Slightly too soon, my train to Golf Street arrived and I boarded (but only after taking a quick snap).
Golf Street Station
2 minutes down the line, the train arrived at Golf Street. Only the very front door was to open. Again, 2 people got out as well as me. They left, and I surveyed the station.
The station has very short platforms. They can just about fit 2 coaches on, so most trains have to use selective door opening (SDO). The platforms are skeletal (as alluded to earlier), with the same facilities. There is only one shelter: situated on the down platform. This seems very silly to me: more people are going to be waiting for trains at Golf Street to go to Dundee and further south/west rather than to go the 1 or 2 stops north to Carnoustie (1000 yards further along the line) or Arbroath.
I spent just over an hour taking pictures and doing some 'proper' trainspotting. During that time, the friendly Carnoustie locals had things to say about my existence. Well, 2 people (and I don't know if they were all locals). The first pair were in a car, and, once they saw me, said “it's not an actual station” as they drove off. I know this to be false for a number of reasons:
I may not be an expert in many things (or anything really), especially definitions and spellings of words (just check all the typso that I've made in the previous posts), but I'm pretty confident that I can identify railway stations.
The second was a man. He came out of a house I assume that he had a right to be in to make sure that I didn't think that I was at Carnoustie station. I thanked him and said I was just taking pictures of trains. Apparently a lot of people are idiots, because they think that the 8 signs that all have “Golf Street / Sràid a' Ghoilf” printed on them, they actually have “Carnoustie / Càrn Ùstaidh” printed, when this is clearly not the case. (Exceptions made if the person is blind/partially sighted, perhaps obviously.)
After a short intermodal service had passed through, I decided it was time to walk to Carnoustie station (the actual one) to catch my train home. This happened.
All three stations are hardly rural or remote. Therefore, their patronage could increase significantly if they got a reasonable level of service. An argument could be made that some are too close to other, more established stations. However I would only make that argument for Golf Street. Barry Links could have a more reasonable patronage (not that high, but not stupidly low) if it had a more regular service. Ditto with Balmossie. Perhaps my previous suggestion of introducing a shuttle between Golf Street and Barry Links (the stations being at either end of Carnoustie Golf Links) to transport the rich golfing lard-tubs about the links, could work. (It couldn't.)
Frequently Asked Questions
My typo on the word “typso” was deliberate. Don't write in.
Author - Felix