I am a big fan and campaigner for the Far North and Kyle Lines, the two surviving railway lines in the Northern Highlands. For various reasons which are reserved for another article, these railway lines are facing a number of challenges, with patronage either stagnant or declining, and a railway service which is far from reliable. But, the focus of this short piece is the failure of the timetable to improve the service.
Because of the infrequent and irregular services on the Far North and Kyle lines, the connection times with services to/from more southern destinations (Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh etc.) are very important. The minimum connection time at Inverness is 5 minutes, meaning that connections can already be quite tight but manageable. The main problem with the December 2018 timetables is that they break some of these connections.
This is a full list of the broken connections:
Monday to Friday:
The 08:20 Aberdeen to Inverness arrives at 10:32, meaning that one can change to the 10:41 Inverness to Wick service. From the timetable change, this service arrives at Inverness at 10:37, meaning that the connection will be broken. Passengers will either have to 07:15 Aberdeen to Inverness service (extending journey times by 65 minutes), or use the 10:13 Aberdeen to Inverness service and board the 14:00 Inverness to Wick service (this involved a wait of over an hour and 30 minutes at Inverness).
The 15:27 Aberdeen to Inverness service arrives at 17:49, meaning that one can make the 17:54 Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh service. From the timetable change, this service arrives at Inverness at 17:50, meaning that the connection is broken. Passengers either have to get the 13:38 Aberdeen to Inverness service (extending journey times by nearly 2 hours and having a 1 hour and 50 minute wait at Inverness) or, as the 17:54 is the last train of the day from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, travel the next morning.
The 15:08 Glasgow Queen Street to Inverness service arrives at 18:21, meaning that one can make the 18:30 Inverness to Wick service. From the timetable change, the Glasgow service arrives 7 minutes later at 18:28, and the Inverness to Wick service departs 2 minutes earlier, at 18:28. This comprehensively breaks the connection. As this is the last departure to Wick of the day, the only option is to board the 13:36 Edinburgh to Inverness service at Perth, which adds an hour and a half to the journey time.
The 16:00 Wick to Inverness service arrives at 20:10, meaning that one can make the 20:15 Inverness to Glasgow. From the timetable change, the 16:00 arrives at Inverness at 20:13, which breaks the connection. As the 20:15 is the last service south (apart from the sleeper, which only picks up passengers, meaning it is of no use for people trying to travel to Glasgow or Edinburgh), passengers will have to travel on the 12:34 departure from Wick, which is a difference of 3 and a half hours. This is unacceptable.
The same situation applies to the 08:20 Aberdeen to Inverness with the change onto the 10:41 Inverness to Wick, and the 15:27 Aberdeen to Inverness with the change onto the 17:54 to Kyle of Lochalsh, and the 15:08 Glasgow to Inverness with the change to the 18:28 departure to Wick.
The 13:36 Edinburgh Waverley to Inverness arrives at 16:54, giving ample time to connect with the 17:12 departure to Ardgay. However, from the timetable change this service will arrive at 17:09, an addition of 15 minutes to the current times. This breaks the Ardgay connection. Either, passengers will have to travel on the 18:28 departure, or 12:09 service from Glasgow Queen Street at Perth, which means leaving Edinburgh 2 hours earlier.
The 14:38 Glasgow Queen Street to Inverness arrives at 17:45, which allows interchange with the 17:54 departure to Wick. From the timetable change, the Glasgow service will arrive at 17:54, which breaks the connection. As the 17:54 to Wick is the only train of the day (Sunday services are very limited), passengers will have to board the 13:56 Edinburgh to Inverness at Perth, meaning journey times will be extended by over 40 minutes.
The biggest problem that there is with changes is that, whilst many people loose out, nobody gains anything either. I understand the argument made by people in Network Rail and ScotRail that, whilst some people may loose out from the timetable change, the majority of people will gain something. However, in this situation, nobody has gained anything. Passengers north and south of Inverness have got slower journey times, with trains taking up to 15 minutes longer than they previously did. These slower journey times mean that connections no longer exists, which harms passengers, especially those on the Far North and Kyle lines who have very few trains to choose from. I am a semi-regular user of the 16:00 from Wick to Inverness, continuing onto the 20:15 south. From December, that connection will no longer exist. That means that I will have to make fewer journeys. This is something that will be replicated as people are forced to other means of transport or endure far longer journey times. Simply, we would have been far better off with the old timetable. There is a campaign by local rail users group Friends of the Far North Line to get the connections re-instated, although this will only happen at the next timetable change, which is in May 2019. So, for at least 6 months, passengers will have to suffer a worse timetable than they already had, with ScotRail taking some form of financial hit as people move from the train to the car or coach.
For all the talk of “The best railway Scotland has ever seen”, I worry that the only focus is the Central Belt, with the outlying but equally as vital lines left as after thoughts. I hoped I was being paranoid, but this timetable change has confirmed my worries. I urge Network Rail and ScotRail to re-consider their new timetable, and improve services on the Far North and Kyle lines, not make them worse.
Note: The Friends of the Far North Line produced a very helpful table showing the broken connections. A link to it is available here.
ScotRail and Network Rail have re-instated the connections to the 18:28 service to Wick by making it depart 3 minutes later but skipping Beauly. This is good news for passengers travelling to every station other than Beauly, who will have to board either the 17:54 or the 21:06 services.