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.
Author - Felix