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West Highland Line CRP and ScotRail deliver “community rescue”

West Highland Line CRP’s Hege Hernæs talks to Community Rail Network on a partnership with ScotRail that keeps communities connected during this difficult time.

The West Highland Line from Glasgow to Fort William, across the Moor of Rannoch, is often considered a ‘tourist line’. It will appear to anyone crossing these vast, wind-swept, spectacular uplands for the first time, that these remote parts are home to nothing but red deer and other wildlife. There are no roads, only this single-track railway.

Like elsewhere, COVID-19 travel restrictions during lockdown have seen passenger figures drop by around 90%, and train operator ScotRail has had to cut back their normal daily service of three trains in each direction. Anything else would be a waste of taxpayers’ money.

But some people make this remote mountain region their home. There are tiny lineside communities that depend on the train to get to the nearest shops and to attend medical appointments. So when ScotRail’s reduced timetable suddenly made it impossible for them to make the two-hour return journey to Fort William in a day, not even life’s ‘essentials’ could be accessed.

Station team manager Alister MacLennan at Fort William knows his regular local passengers and he understood their plight. He contacted ScotRail’s Glasgow-based HQ and suggested a low-cost solution. Would it be possible to run a morning train from Rannoch to Fort William in the slot normally occupied by the now-cancelled Caledonian Sleeper? That would give passengers an hour and a half to go about their business before the return train.

ScotRail’s Business Development Team quite liked that idea. But it would be too expensive to run the extra train Mon – Fri. Would two days a week be helpful to those who needed transport? And would it be possible to reach all would-be passengers with news about the extra local train, so that use would be made of it? The Business Development Team had a brainwave: let’s ask the West Highland CRP.

ScotRail’s email arrived in the CRP’s in-box in the evening of Monday 8 Feb. By Tuesday lunchtime the response came back. Representatives of all lineside communities had been contacted and their answers had been immediate and near-identical: two days a week would be fantastic. And members of each community could be contacted by email, phone, local radio or a knock on the door.

By Wednesday a decision had been made to put on an extra train and by Thursday, local train crews had been enlisted to work it. So by Monday morning – a week after the idea was mooted – everything was in place for the first ‘community train’ from Rannoch to Fort William. The service will continue to run Mondays and Thursdays until the Fort William Sleeper service is reinstated.

As a CRP, we are impressed with ScotRail’s quick implementation of their ‘community rescue’, and we are pleased to have been able to play a small part in that respect.