At 19:37 on Friday, the Stena HSS fast ferry docked at Stranraer harbour in south-west Scotland. Three minutes later, the 19:40 Scotrail train to Glasgow Central departed Stranraer’s railway station, located next to the ferry terminal.
Only two people made it off the packed Friday-night sailing and onto the train. I was one them, under-exercised muscles burning, lungs heaving and every inch of my skin sweating. As the diminutive and noisy two carriage Sprinter train rolled slowly out of the shabby railway station, I caught the briefest of glimpses of tired, angry and frustrated passengers just making it onto the platform, heaving suitcases, prams and bags with them.
This is the state of integrated public transport in Great Britain today: a fragmented and privatised patchwork of private companies, each concerned more with their own bottom line and the penalties of not running their own services to time than with serving the people who feed their profits.
Stranraer railway station is built adjacent to the Stena Line ferry terminal, and is in fact closer and more easily accessible by boat than it is from the town of Stranraer itself. Stranraer Town railway station has long been closed, and the word Harbour has subsequently been dropped from the name of this station. It was built in the late nineteenth century and, for most of the twentieth century, has been the designated interchange for British rail passengers crossing the North Channel to Northern Ireland. Until the early nineteen-nineties, there were daily Intercity Sleeper trains to and from London that were timed to connect with ferries. Until a year or two ago, direct trains connected the port with Carlisle and Newcastle. And until next year, the last remaining passenger trains connect these sailings with Glasgow. In a bid to shorten ferry crossings by about ten miles, services are being moved north towards the mouth of Loch Ryan.
The new Loch Ryan Port will have no rail access, and foot passengers will be dependent on bus connections instead. Great Britain and Northern Ireland will lose their last direct rail and sail connection (the alternative being via Holyhead and Dun Laoghaire or Dublin). The relocation of the port has been sold on the promise of “shorter” crossings, since Loch Ryan Port will be about eight or nine miles north of Stranraer, and closer to the opening of Loch Ryan onto the North Channel. However, Stena aren’t just building a new port. They’re also buying two new “super fast conventional ferries” that will complete the “shorter” crossing in “just over two hours”. As you can see from the timetable above, that means the new (geographically) “shorter” crossing will actually take longer than the fastest existing Stena HSS service, which takes two hours exactly. Due to rising fuel costs and its horrendous fuel consumption, Stena Line will be retiring their Stena HSS gas turbine fast ferry and replacing it with conventional boats that are cheaper to run.
You can buy a ticket to Belfast (or any station in Ireland, north and south) from any British railway station. Fares are astonishingly reasonable, if sometimes difficult to purchase. A ‘Anytime’ single from London to Belfast costs just £46, and is available right up until departure. Likewise, a single from Glasgow to Belfast costs justs £25. Both fares can be reduced by about a third with a 16-25 or Senior Railcard as well. The problem is, Stena Line and Scotrail have no interest is facilitating the interchange of such low-yielding passengers.
Scotrail hold a franchise to operate passenger services on the National Rail network. The bizarre legal arrangements of the systems once nationalised under British Rail means that they have to meet certain punctuality targets, or pay financial penalties. The railway line between Stranraer and Ayr (where it joins the suburban lines towards Glasgow) is mostly single track with just a handful of passing loops. Single track segments are securely controlled through the use of physical tokens passed between train drivers and signalmen at various points along its route. The countryside through which the railway runs is very remote, and track maintenance is difficult due to limited access by road. The clickety-clack of bolted railway tracks still fills the train carriage as it bounces through rural Wigtownshire: unlike mainline railways this one has yet to be modernised with continuously welded and tensioned rails. One late train on this route can cause havoc, delaying the next service in the opposite direction which will usually be waiting for it at the next passing loop. One late train means financial penalties to Scotrail, but two late trains means twice the penalties.
In other words, Scotrail aren’t going to delay the train for delayed Stena Line passengers. Similarly, Stena Line operate almost as if the railway doesn’t exist. Stena have operated the route since British Rail sold its Sealink Ferries division in 1991. Whereas the ferry was once an effective continuation of passenger trains from all over Great Britain, they are now just awkward bed fellows who happen to serve the same small town in Wigtownshire.
But not for much longer. On 10 February 2010, the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh washed their hands of any responsibility on the matter of integrated tansport, and approved the Loch Ryan Port (Harbour Empowerment) Order 2009. The £200m “investment” in an unintegrated ferry port on Loch Ryan and two new ferries seemed to sway more political minds than the thought of losing Britain’s last rail and sail interchange for Northern Ireland. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond even went so far as to say:
The relocation of the port to the new Loch Ryan Port will also aid tourism with faster crossings between Scotland and Northern Ireland and help the regeneration of Stranraer as a major marine leisure area. This is a significant day for transport and investment in Scotland.
And a significant day for anyone who lives in (or wants to get to) Northern Ireland, by affordable, sustainable and enjoyable rail and sail.
Footnote: The Stranraer to Ayr Line Suport Association, who had volunteers on my train, have unearthed data from Department for Transport Maritime Port statistics and “Sustainable Development Commission recognised sources” relating to the relocation of the port. With my emphasis:
The environmental damage will be considerable as the A77 corridor currently contributes in excess of 45,000 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere of which over 26,000 tonnes derives from the Stranraer and Cairnryan areas alone. It is hard to reconcile this decision with the Scottish Government’s climate change agenda. The ports of Stranraer and Cairnryan have also declined over the last decade with reductions in cars (down 36%), passengers (down 38%) and lorries (down 21%) at Stranraer and in cars (down 16%)and passengers (down 18%) at Cairnryan. This suggests that whilst Cairnryan may have some advantage over Stranraer, the decline is structural. It is interesting to note that local authorities in North Wales are lobbying for a rail freight facility at Holyhead in complete contrast to Dumfries & Galloway and South Ayrshire Councils. Ironically the amount of rai/ferry passenger traffic at Stranraer has increased over the last six years.
Every journey has a beginning, and regrettably in Glasgow that usually involves an overpriced bus. Allowing for some traveller’s artistic license, I could happily remember a journey to the Isle of Skye beginning here, at the tranquil Helensburgh Upper railway station. Maybe twenty miles from Glasgow, Helensburgh has two stations, one with a regular service on the electric line into Glasgow and the other a modest single platform in a cutting on the northern fringe of the town. Having skirted along the shores of the Clyde for half an hour or so, the West Highland Line begins here. We have left behind the grey tower blocks, littered streets and urbanised horizons of the city, and suddenly find ourselves rattling through rolling rural landscapes.
I have taken this train many times before, although not since moving to Glasgow last year. This line is no longer a component of a much longer journey from England to the remote west coast of Scotland, but a practical escape hatch from the city to the countryside. A couple of times a day an unassuming train of railcars departs Queen Street station for Fort William and Mallaig, normally with a portion to Oban detaching en route. After winding up steep hills past suspicious looking military bases, the train approaches Loch Lomond and begins a sharper and more screeching series of curves. Above us, only mountain. Below us, only trees, glimpses of a road and water. At Ardlui we’re held up for a short while, waiting for a southbound train to leave the single track ahead.
Being so remote, the West Highland Line has no traditional railway signals to control access to its portions of single track. A team of doubtless charming British Rail boffins developed a system in the nineteen-eighties that could satisfactorily replace the traditional tokens. Until then (and to this day on other remote British railway lines) an actual physical token, normally a large coin or loop that could easily be scooped from a signalman by the driver of a passing train, must be held by a driver before he or she can lead a train onto a section of single track. With only one token, it’s a relatively failsafe system to ensure that only one train enters a section of track at any one time.
The solution of the dynamic and pre-portable computer nineteen-eighties is a radio-controlled system. The token is virtual, transmitted by radio to an ungainly metal box in the cab of the train. On clearing a section of single track (normally at a station with a passing loop) the driver releases the token for the previous section of track and then awaits reception of the new token.
Don’t ask me how it works, but it does. And it permits an archaic but astonishingly beautiful railway to continue to exist, with daily passenger service and popular summertime tourist trains winding through the mountains of the West Highlands, perfectly framing any escape from the city with a rolling landscape of beautiful scenery and wildlife.
On journeys to the northernmost extremities of the countries I’ve lived in or visited, I have always travelled by train. In the early winter of 1997 or 1998 (I have very little documentary evidence to remind me) I pushed further north than I’ve ever been since, arriving in St. Petersburg (59º 56’N) on a stiflingly hot sleeper train from Moscow. Then in May 2006 I travelled north from Winnipeg in Manitoba to the remote town of Churchill on the frozen shore of the Hudson Bay (58º 74’N). The journey took about forty hours, snaking up through prairie farmland towards thick forests and remote native settlements, before striking the bleak tundra that rolled on for hours until we reached the end of the line. The pair of locomotives that hauled me there (in the thrice-weekly rake of refurbished fifties passenger carriages) are seen above, rumbling away during their twelve hour layover before the return journey south. The engines of these trains always idle when stationed in Churchill in case the sub-zero temperatures seize them up and they can’t be restarted. And they always pull the train in tandem, no matter how short or lightly loaded the train is, since breakdowns cannot easily be rescued.
On Saturday I pushed further north in the British Isles than I’ve ever managed before, and unsurprisingly enough I did it by train, riding on Britain’s most northerly railway.
It should be considered a national disgrace that British trains don’t have the same majesty, sophistication or drama of Russian or American locomotives. The Far North Line from Inverness to Thurso (58º 59’N) and Wick (58º 45’N) traverses some of Britain’s remotest and most beautiful landscapes, taking four and a half hours to cover some 280-odd miles. But it now does so under the almost exclusive service of frankly piddly little two-carriage Sprinter railcars, the noisy, rattly, overcrowded and cramped scourge of my old cross country commute between East Anglia and Sheffield.
But then again, the scenery more than makes up for the discomfort of the journey. This was perhaps the coldest weekend of the winter so far, with the BBC expecting inland temperatures in the Highlands to drop as low as -15ºC. On Saturday only a light frost had touched the remote moorland seen from the train (above); my relatively busy train from Glasgow to Inverness had earlier crossed the Drumochter Pass in thick snow.
But by Sunday afternoon and the return journey, a heavy snowfall had covered the northern Highlands. We rattled across unwelded track (that’s what makes the clickety-clack, don’t you know?) and I sank into the seat, recalling Glen Gould and endless wintry skies.
The Cathcart Circle railway line that snakes through our little corner of Govanhill and Queen’s Park is our handy link to the centre of Glasgow. It takes just six minutes and £1.35 to get from our stop into Central Station, which is both quicker and cheaper than the cynically expensive bus. The lines (and most every other one in Scotland) however, are much quieter today, as the RMT calls the first of two twenty-four hour strikes this week (from 12h00 midday today and 12h00 midday on Thursday). As with all labour disputes, there are of course two sides (link and link – thanks Monkey for the URLs) to every story.