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The popular Jacobite steam train services along the West Highland Line are just one casualty of this week’s national train strikes which could potentially see as much as £1.5million wiped from the Lochaber economy.
After two years of economic battering due to the Covid pandemic, hopes were high this year would see a bounce back for the Lochaber and wider Highland economies.
But the train strike action by the RMT union on Tuesday, today (Thursday) and on Saturday of this week in a row over pay, working conditions and redundancies, threatens to not only leave people across the Highlands and Islands cut off, but could herald a summer of travel and economic woes for the region.
The 24-hour strikes scheduled are expected to cause severe disruption to rail services, with Network Rail confirming that the industrial action is expected to cost the railway around £30 million per day.
Recently nationalised rail operator ScotRail has confirmed that it will be operating no trains north of the central belt on the strike days, and there are expected to be significant disruptions on other services on days around the strike.
Inverness-based economist Tony Mackay has estimated the weekly cost to the Scottish economy as being be in the range £65-70 million.
Asked about the potential impact on Lochaber, Mr Mackay said: ‘It is very difficult to estimate the cost to Lochaber without surveying a sample of the local hotels and other businesses.
‘However, assuming that Lochaber accounts for two-three per cent of the Scottish total, the weekly cost to the local economy would be about £1.5 million.
‘The strike must be particularly worrying for the Lochaber tourism industry because it has had two bad years because of the coronavirus pandemic and was expecting a much better 2022 summer tourist season.’
Jacobite service operator West Coast Railways (WCR) confirmed to the Lochaber Times the iconic steam train would also be halting its trips between Fort William and Mallaig on strike days.
WCR stated: ‘We have contacted the passengers on the affected dates, which include both of the Jacobite trips on all three dates.
‘All passengers are advised to read the communications sent to them as they will confirm the action that we are taking regarding your booking.
‘Please accept our apologies for these cancellations, but they were beyond our control.’
Highlands and Islands MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston, the shadow business and tourism minister, said the strikes threatened to cut-off the north of Scotland at a time when the reduced rail services were already hitting the region hard.
‘With confirmation from ScotRail that it will be running none of its services at all into or within the Highlands on the affected days, we are facing a real calamity in our transport network,’ he added.
‘This will severely disrupt the lives of those who use our railways to get to work, to travel or to reach vital appointments. And there is likely to be considerable knock-on disruption to services on the days around the strikes too.
‘At the start of our key tourist season, this will have an enormous impact on the Highlands and on so many local businesses.
‘While there will still be some services running across the Central Belt, the network in the Highlands and Islands will be shut down for three days and that is unacceptable.’
And Fort William and Ardnamurchan councillor Angus MacDonald (Lib Dem) warned: ‘Transport in the West Highlands is in a mess, whether it is the state of the A82, CalMac ferries or the railways which in Lochaber are an essential method of transport.
‘It might be that 1,000 visitors a day are unable to get here; that could be £500,000 less expenditure in our hospitality sector.’
And Mr MacDonald added: ‘The knock-on cancellation of the Jacobite steam train will be a hammer blow to retail in Mallaig.’
Frazer Coupland, CEO of Lochaber Chamber of Commerce, said: ‘Scotland is being disproportionately impacted by a number of economic and infrastructure issues, with rail strikes adding additional burden to an already struggling picture.
‘Lochaber is not alone in needing our businesses, workforce and destination visitor numbers to be supported and not hindered by current or future disruption – disruption that could damage prospects of a strong visitor season.’
The West Highland Community Rail Partnership did not wish to comment on the politics of the ongoing industrial action, but said it was clear that this week’s strikes would affect the traveling public up and down the country.
‘In Lochaber, they will also affect the tourist industry. Not only will many visitors be disappointed that the Jacobite steam train is not running, but the area’s many accommodation providers will see bookings cancelled as their guests are unable to make their way to the West Highlands as planned,’ said a spokesperson for the partnership.
She added: ‘The rail-dependent businesses at Rannoch and Corrour will, of course, be hardest hit, but it is also worth noting that the every-second-day strike pattern means that Caledonian Sleeper passengers are disproportionately affected.
‘The company has had to cancel operations for a full week because, by their very nature, every sleeper journey straddles two days.
‘We can only hope that the parties find a satisfactory solution as soon as possible.’
In a statement this week, however, RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch, defended the need for the strikes after the latest proposals from train operators and Network Rail were deemed unacceptable.
‘Faced with such an aggressive agenda of cuts to jobs, conditions, pay and pensions, RMT has no choice but to defend our members industrially to stop this race to the bottom,’ said Mr Lynch.
‘The RMT supports the campaign for a square deal for all working people in the face of the cost-of-living crisis, and our current campaign is a part of that more general campaign which means that public services have to be properly funded and all workers properly paid with good conditions.’
Fort William station on the West Highland Line. The 24-hour strikes scheduled are expected to cause severe disruption to rail services, with Network Rail confirming that the industrial action is expected to cost the railway around £30 million per day. NO F45 FW-Train-Station-Mallaig
The Jacobite steam train draws tens of thousands of visitors each year to Glenfinnan to see it cross the famous viaduct. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, The Write Image.
NO F26 jacobite steam train 01