Winter in the Highlands is a time where the most remote areas of the country become more remote. Visitor numbers reduce and transport becomes less frequent than it already is. It can also get bitterly cold. What a perfect set of conditions to visit two railway stations there.
Both Stromeferry and Lochluichart are located on the Kyle Line which runs from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh. Stromeferry is not a request stop, and is not technically in the proper least used stations list. Its current annual patronage is just below 1,400. Lochluichart is a remote station with an annual patronage that hovers around the 500 to 600 mark. It is a request stop, one of 6 on the Kyle Line (all of which are (or have been)) in the least used stations list.
The normal early morning alarm greeted me, and I found myself at Haymarket about an hour later, in plenty of time for my train north. The December timetable changes mean that I now have to get an earlier train from Edinburgh to change to the first Highland Main Line service (which originates from Glasgow).
At Haymarket, a lady came up to me and asked where the 06:20 service to Liverpool was departing from. I told her that there was no direct train to Liverpool from Edinburgh (which there isn't) and that she had to change at Preston and Wigan. This explanation did not suit her, because she remained certain that there was a direct Edinburgh to Liverpool service and that if she walked to Waverley station then she would find it. I repeated that there simply wasn't such a train and that she needed to change trains at least once. After an explanation of the route to Waverley, she decided that she wouldn't walk there. I asked her what ticket she had (it was getting dangerously close to the 06:19 departure that I thought she wanted). Her response was that she thought she had an off-peak weekender ticket which allowed her to travel at any point but that she didn't have it with her. Whilst I internally slammed my head into the floor, my mouth suggested that she should either obtain her ticket or buy a new one. At this point, she went to the ticket machines and noisily collected her pre-purchased ticket using her card and booking reference. She came back to me and showed me the ticket. Of course, she had an Advance Single (which is only valid on the service that it is booked for) for the 10:52 departure from Edinburgh Waverley, and was actually going to Runcorn rather than Liverpool (which makes a difference for changing point). After I had explained this, and that she had a 4 and a half hour wait, she decided the best thing was to go to to Waverley. “Can I get a direct train there from here? How do you spell 'Waverley'?” I took her to a ticket machine, selected the single from Haymarket to Edinburgh and let her complete the purchase. I directed her to platform 3 and she left having thanked me multiple times.
5 paragraphs in, and I still hadn't got on a train, so I thought I should. I boarded my booked service from Haymarket to Perth and then got out my tickets. My Edinburgh to Inverness advance single came with a Mandatory Reservation Coupon which detailed the services I had to use to complete my journey. This was labelled “Mandatory Reservation Coupon 1 of 0”. “Does this ticket really exist? Do I have to use the services detailed on it if it doesn't exist?” are just some of the questions that could provoke an hour-long philosophy discussion in a university tutorial. I wasn't in one of those, so I did the second best thing, which was to take the piss out of it on Facebook.
I had nearly half an hour at Perth, so I decided to walk to a nearby shop and buy my 2 litre bottle of water which I require for every trip. Back at the station, I boarded the service to Inverness. The scenery of the Highlands greeted me, with the frost down south giving way to snow as the train moved higher and further north. I did a journey check at this point to see how well the North Highland lines where doing. The note “major disruption” caused slight panic, which gave way to relief when it turned out to be a points failure at Ardgay that did not affect my journey to Stromeferry. Instead, there were a number of cancellations on the Far North Line.
At Inverness, the temperature was noticeably lower and the day was only going to get colder. I purchased a hot chocolate (with a disposable cup – sorry environment) and toastie from the station Costa. I then boarded the train which would take me to Stromeferry. I was one of about 10 people from Inverness.
The train filled up slightly at the stations up to Dingwall, but there were noticeably fewer people on board than there were last summer. This is normal for rural railway lines such as the Kyle Line. I was the only person to get off at Stromeferry. I waved to the conductor, and the train departed.
Stromeferry used to be a passing loop. The second platform is still visible, although it is inaccessible by the public. It is located at the end of a deep cutting which rises quite rapidly at the Kyle of Lochalsh end of the platform. The platform itself is quite long for the line, and was longer before the far end was fenced off.
The facilities are standard, with most of them clustered around the Inverness end. The shelter is located on part of the platform which is lower than the rest of it. The noticeboards, signs, bin and bike racks are all located around the gate which acts as the entrance/exit of the station.
The village of Stromeferry (or South Strome as some signs refer to it) used to have a ferry connection to North Strome and Strome Castle. However, when a new bypass was built in the 70s, it negated the ferry which meant that it ceased to operated regularly. It has been revived since, mostly during road closures, but Stromeferry generally has no ferry. There was quite a famous road sign on which was written “Strome Ferry (No Ferry)” although this has been removed. The short quay which these shuttles used still exists, right next to the railway station. The quay on the other side of Loch Carron is also visible.
I decided to walk from the station up the steep road which led out of the village. Several hairpin turns brought me to Strome Wood, which is a small part of woodland owned by Forestry Commission Scotland. I decided to have a look. With a little over half an hour to go before my train, the ¾ mile route looked doable. I walked up, looking back to see the spectacular view of the full length of Loch Carron stretching out under me. The walk continued up into actual woodland, where the view was obscured. Time was ticking, so I didn't take as much time as I would have liked to properly admire the area. After a steep ascent, the path flattened out, turned back on itself and started steeply back down some steps. These steps bent round onto quite a wide forest track, with a reasonable downward gradient. My speed increased and I got quite a rate down the track through the forest until I bowled out onto a natural viewing platform. From there it was a short flat walk back to the start and the road back to Stromeferry station. I had completed the ¾ mile circuit in under 10 minutes.
Back at the station, I sat and waited for a short time before the return train rolled into view. The line hugs the coast at this point, so the train pops in and out of view a couple of times before arriving at the station.
I got on, and informed the conductor that I wished to alight at Lochluichart. After just over an hours journey, the train slowed and stopped. I got off and surveyed the area as the train departed.
Lochluichart is located on the bank of Loch Luichart (albeit very close to the western end), near the village of Lochluichart. There are a few houses on the lane which links the main road to the railway station.
The station itself has a small wooden shelter, a series of noticeboards, a help point and a bin. The bin was surprisingly not empty. There was a particularly pointless notice at the station which targeted fare evaders by telling them to always buy a ticket before they boarded. I made sure to use the great choice of 0 ticket machines at Lochluichart to buy a ticket.
At the eastern end of the platform there is a level crossing which leads to a path. This path leads past a pond to the banks of Loch Luichart. I spent a while sitting on the rocks, eating some sandwiches and enjoying the fairly spectacular scenery. The moon had also appeared.
The pond was completely iced up, although it was the sort of ice which looked like it would be the scene of an over-dramatised public information broadcast about the dangers of cold water. The sort that starts with a group of youngish boys playing about and laughing, continues with the most hesitant member of the group being dared to do something stupid, and ends with a blurry shot of an ambulance and a parent looking sad whilst holding a photograph.
Back at the station, I still had another 2 and a half hours before my train back to Inverness came, so I decided to explore back from the Loch by walking along the main road. I came across a quaint little church and community hall of Kinlochluichart. It is a listed building dating from the early/mid 19th century. The church itself is rather small, and has a rather impressive tomb for Lady Ashburton. It shares services with another church in Contin, with services alternating each week between the two. The next days service was to be held in Kinlochluichart church, with the service next week at Contin.
Despite being a lovely little church, darkness was falling quickly (this is winter in the Highlands), and I did not want to walk along the main road in the dark. I got back to the railway station unharmed and spent the remaining hour and a half inside the shelter. It was getting very cold (approaching -7ºC as I later found out) so I experimented with how far I could get my breath away from the shelter before it became invisible and scraping the ice off the notice boards. With about 10 minutes to go before the train, I used the help point to see if it was running on time. The train had not reported for over half an hour (which isn't unusual in this part of the world) but it's last report was that it was on time. Sure enough, bang on 18:41 it swung round into view. I held my arm out in order to get the train to stop, which it did. I greeted the driver with a hello as he had popped his head out of the cab. I boarded and rested my feet on the heater in an attempt to unfreeze them.
Back to Edinburgh
The guard came round and marked off my ticket back to Inverness. We exchanged comments about the weather
“What's it like outside?”
“Really very cold.”
“I bet you're glad to be in the warm!”
I certainly was. Because it was dark I couldn't appreciate the scenery of the Kyle Line, so I listened to some podcasts and slept for part of the journey whilst my feet defrosted.
At Inverness I got off and walked towards the ticket barriers in order to see what platform my 20:15 connection south would depart from. It had been cancelled because of shortage of train crew. I showed my ticket to the gate attendant who informed me that there would be a replacement bus from Inverness to Perth where there would still be trains to get me the rest of the way home. I dislike long-distance coach travel and do my best to avoid it. I spent the journey down the A9 asleep (or trying to sleep).
Once at Perth, I walked into the station and boarded the first train south to Stirling. There, I spent half an hour in a waiting room which smelt so strongly of urine and excrement that I had to use my polo-neck thermal as a face mask. With my long, dark coat I looked very much like an assassin, albeit one who is utterly incompetent at the entire point of an assassin, which is to kill a person.
The train to Edinburgh arrived, and I was disappointed that it was not an electric one. (The line from Stirling to Edinburgh had been recently electrified and I had hoped that this would be my first experience of an electric service on the route.) The train made steady process to Haymarket where I got off and went straight home. I was far too tired to buy chips on the way.
I don't mind helping people, especially on railway matters, but the lack of knowledge of some travellers is sometimes amazing. (I don't let on when I think someone has a serious lack of knowledge.) In this case, if I had not been consulted, she either would have waited at the station until May 2019 (when a direct service from Edinburgh to Liverpool is due to start), or she would have tried to board the 06:19 service thinking that she had bought a ticket that she both didn't have and wasn't valid on the service anyway. I think my intervention helped.
One of the things that I enjoy about visiting stations with a very low patronage is the bleakness and remoteness of them. Arriving somewhere where there are no people for miles around is something that I enjoy, especially when I can do it by my favourite mode of transport (which is the train, in case anyone didn't know). Parts of the Highlands in winter are perfect for this. None of the 3 trains on the Kyle Line had many people on board, trains that I know to be reasonably full in the summer months. For others this trip will be another piece of the puzzle which says “Felix is nuts”.
Visiting the Highlands in winter is seriously worth it, and preferable to having to deal with midges. I'd rather have to put on a couple of extra layers than be caked in those horrible little biting things.
Author - Felix