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A plea has been issued this week to the operator of the Jacobite steam train to halt extended stops at Glenfinnan Station due to continuing issues with human waste being emptied from the train toilets onto the track bed.
At this month’s meeting of Glenfinnan Community Council, Hege Hernes, who manages Glenfinnan Station Museum on the West Highland Line, confirmed that the Jacobite was once again stopping to allow passengers to visit the station.
And she also revealed that human excrement was still being dumped on the line, despite, she said, Network Rail paying for carriages to have retention tanks fitted. These were not being used, she added, because there was not the capacity in Fort William to empty them.
Ms Hernes asked the community council to write to Jacobite operator, West Coast Railways (WCR), to complain and local Highland councillor Denis Rixson requested that the complaint be copied to Highland Council’s environmental health team.
Asked what was happening regards the emptying of toilets on board the Jacobite, made famous in the Harry Potter movies as the Hogwarts Express, a West Coast Railways spokesman told the Lochaber Times this week: ‘Our engineering staff worked hard last winter to modernise our carriages and but for Covid would have fitted retention tanks to them all by this summer.
‘However, we are confident all the work will be completed well in advance of the deadline for fitment of 2023. Until then, very conscious of local people’s concerns, our staff ensure that all loos are locked and cannot be used while the Jacobite is in any of the stations along the route.
‘Unfortunately, the lavatories at Glenfinnan have been out of action this summer, which meant people who would normally use the station facilities have been forced to use the train’s loos.
‘And on one occasion when the Jacobite was stranded there for two hours, as the Station Museum, who are responsible for the station loos, decided not to open them, we had no alternative but to unlock those on the train because we have a primary duty of care for the wellbeing of our passengers, who included both elderly people and young children.
‘However, that was an isolated incident.’
Asked by the Lochaber Times exactly how many carriages hauled by the steam services on the West Highland Line currently have retention tanks fitted, the spokesman told us: ‘A mixture of the two carriages are used by the Jacobite. But staff on the train are not always aware which have been modernised, so to be on the safe side they routinely lock all the lavatories while the train is in stations.’
In March of last year, WCR suspended the stopping of trains in Glenfinnan due to Covid concerns and that suspension remained in force until the first week of this month. Since then the two daily steam trains stop for 25 minutes at Glenfinnan Station, allowing hundreds of passengers to disembark.
The Lochaber Times has now viewed photographic evidence of human excrement and used toilet paper littering the track at the station.
Responding to the comments from WCR, Ms Hernes, also secretary of the West Highland Line Community Rail Partnership, told us: ‘There are no public toilets at Glenfinnan Station, just like there are no public toilets at Arisaig Station. It would therefore seem inappropriate for trains without retention tanks to have extended stops at these stations during a pandemic.
‘Glenfinnan Station Museum provides toilet facilities for its visitors, and traditionally these have also been made available for Jacobite passengers during the train’s extended Glenfinnan stop.
‘However, during the pandemic the museum has been forced to operate with only a skeleton volunteer staff, and we are still only able to welcome four visitors at any one time.
‘In this situation, we cannot cope with attending to the needs of hundreds of Jacobite passengers descending on the station. We therefore asked the steam train operators not to allow for an extended stop at Glenfinnan. This worked well until the beginning of July 2021, when the operators decided to disregard our request.
‘This change of procedure has resulted in twice-daily crowds of hundreds of people around Glenfinnan Station and we have been faced with very clear evidence that on-train toilets have been in use during this stop, despite the train crews’ best efforts to keep them out of bounds – there is, of course, no central locking system available to them.
‘As a result of the reintroduction of the extended stop, the museum has been forced to deal with large amounts of rubbish deposited in and around the platform waste bins, and to open our museum toilet to try to minimise the biohazard of human waste on the station track bed.
‘The work involved is extremely onerous on those who volunteer for our small educational charity, and we fail to understand why our plea to be bypassed cannot continue to be heeded.’