West Highland trains face passenger ‘pressure’

The West Highland Line at Glenfinnan. Photograph: Iain Thornber
The West Highland Line at Glenfinnan. Photograph: Iain Thornber

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Train services between the Highlands and Glasgow may not be able to cope with the sudden spike in passengers later this month as travel restrictions across Scotland are lifted, it has been claimed.

Rail watchers have told the Lochaber Times that with social distancing required in carriages and fewer services running until the new timetable comes into effect on May 16, those trains which are operating may come under intense pressure from April 26 onwards.

They have warned that another spanner in the works could be a shortage of drivers.

ScotRail was required to suspend its driver training programme from March 2020 – which has raised questions about fewer trains facing higher demand, with it taking 15 months to train a driver.

The West Highland Lines are a major pull for tourists, taking them past Britain’s highest mountain and its largest, longest and deepest lochs, as well as Oban being the ‘Gateway to the Isles’ and Fort William being Britain’s ‘Outdoor Capital of the UK’.

The concerns were fully shared with ScotRail, which pointed out that it had not yet finalised its upcoming timetable that comes into effect on May 16.

It plans to start communicating with customers in the coming weeks ahead of the implementation of the new timetable, it said.

ScotRail does expect passenger numbers to increase but also said additional services would then be provided to ‘better reflect demand’.

Passenger numbers using trains have plunged 90 per cent compared to pre-pandemic and it remains to be seen whether it has led to a long-term fall off in rail travel.

David Simpson, ScotRail operations director, said: ‘Like all transport operators we are unable to carry full passenger loads while physical distancing rules are in place, and our priority will be to keep our customers and staff safe.

‘At a time when businesses throughout the country are working under financial constraints, ScotRail is no different, and revising services in a safe and controlled manner is part of that process.’

Dr John McCormick, of the Friends of the West Highland Lines, has received assurances that the ‘best attempts’ would be made to rebuild services and patronage on the famed routes.

He said: ‘Social distancing will limit the capacity of trains and buses in the short term. But as the use of trains at the moment is very low, a steady growth in passengers should be able to be supported.

‘Indeed, in the longer term, rebuilding patronage to pre-Covid levels is essential to boost the hospitality industry in Argyll and Lochaber and avoid Oban being swamped by more car traffic.’

Of the planned nationalisation of ScotRail, he added: ‘The ScotRail brand was launched in 1983 under the nationalised British Rail by the imaginative Chris Green.

‘Friends of the West Highland Lines will engage with the forthcoming new ScotRail organisation to push for better train services and scenic trains to Oban, Fort William and Mallaig.’