ScotRail is under mounting pressure to improve the ‘unusable skeleton service’ operating on the Far North Line between Inverness and Caithness following temporary cuts.
People living along one of the longest routes in the country say a temporary timetable brought in by a rail dispute is hitting them disproportionately.
Hundreds of services all over the country have been disrupted by a dispute over pay and lack of train drivers.
But Ian Budd, convener of the Friends of the Far North Line campaign group, says while around 30% of the train services have been cut nationally, the Far North Line services have taken a hit of more than 50%.
Last train home now hours earlier for many
The temporary timetable introduced by ScotRail for the Far North Line means the last train to Wick and Thurso will leave at 2pm from Inverness instead of around 6pm.
And those visiting Wick will have only an hour and three minutes to stay if they want to return home on the same day.
Calling for the timetable changes to be reversed, Ian believes there are still enough drivers to serve the route during the ongoing row.
And he says ScotRail’s decision to slash the number of daily trains from four to two on the Far North Line is a “gleaming” example of decision-makers seeing everything through a central belt lens.
Ian said: “If you have 50 trains a day running in the central belt and you reduce it to 30, people can still get around, they can still get from Glasgow to Edinburgh.
“But if you live in the north where you get four trains running per day and then ScotRail reduces it to two, that’s unusable.
“We have been left with a skeleton service.”
Ian also expressed sympathy for ScotRail drivers.
He added: “Some members of the public are offended that the train drivers are very well paid, but it is a very skilled job and personally I do not have a problem with the pay rates they are seeking.
“If I was one of them I would want a pay rise too.”
Many residents, including Thurso-based MP Jamie Stone and a Thurso woman left terrified of car travel after being run over, have been vocal on the matter.
The MP said people were stopping him on the street to express outrage and he will raise it in the Commons as an “equality issue”.
‘Trains are my lifeline since I got run over’
Thurso resident Susan Sutherland said: “About 20 years ago my daughter, who was eight, walked out into the middle of the road.
“I ran out to get her and the car hit me, I ended up on the bonnet and then I hit the road and wrapped my body round her thinking the car was going to go right over us because the engine was still going.”
Mrs Sutherland’s knee was injured and she has ongoing serious physical health problems and is mentally-scarred.
She is a long-term sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I get flashbacks of what could have happened to my daughter,” she says.
“I will only go in a car if I really have to and even then only if I know the driver, and I can only cross the road if I really have too, and only at certain points.
“The train is my lifeline.”
Just one train a day to Inverness for some north residents, and concerns raised for wheelchair users
Scotscalder resident Martin Swain, who lives in a cottage at Scotscalder Railway Station, said there is now only one train a day to Inverness “thanks to the current cutbacks”.
According to the ScotRail website, there are usually around four trains a day from Scotscalder to Inverness.
The impact on people accessing hospital appointments is also severe and those with disabilities are finding the temporary timetable difficult.
Caithness resident Louise Smith says: “As a person in a wheelchair I can no longer use the bus service between Thurso and Inverness – the use of coaches with steps and difficult toilet access excludes me and other wheelchair users.
“The removal of services prevents my travel at certain times when I’m already disadvantaged by other rural travel issues.”
Fears that cuts will have ‘drastic impact’
Ian from the Friends of the Far North Line says he believes that ScotRail has been heavy-handed when writing up the new timetable for the rural line.
He said: “There are now going to be drivers on the Far North Line who are not going to be required even on the normal days of work because they have cut their hours back so far.
“The impact that these cuts are going to have is drastic in the Highlands, they have gone far too far in my opinion.”
David Simpson, delivery director for ScotRail said: “We’re sorry to our customers for the disruption they are facing as a result of the reduction in services, and we share their frustration.
“We’re keen to resolve the dispute as soon as possible and the timetable will operate for as long as it needs to in order to provide a more dependable service.
“There will be a review of the timetable and if we’re able to return it back to normal, or make improvements, we’ll make sure we advise customers through our usual channels, the website, our mobile app, and social media.”