We took a couple of weeks off work at the beginning of the month and it’s fair to say that our holiday was fairly complex in terms of travel arrangements; a train from the Highlands to Edinburgh, a Ryanair flight to the south of France, a return flight to Luton, then a BA flight from Heathrow the following day to the Greek islands. After a week’s sailing in the north Aegean we flew home to Heathrow then back north to Inverness.
The itinerary, once finalised, looked unnecessarily exhausting, and before we set off Mr Marr and I did wonder whether we should have kept things simple. But the mix of different friends, activities and locations actually created the feeling that we’d been away for far longer than our fortnight. We even managed a cheeky wee stopover in London with a walk among the parakeets and fountains of Hyde Park, and a very cheeky night watching The Book of Mormon in the West End – it’s not for the faint-hearted!
With a complicated itinerary (five flights, one hire car, a bus journey and two train rides) we were ready for something to go wrong – especially when Ryanair’s news broke. But Michael O’Leary didn’t let us down, and the airline’s triumphant tinny music blared out over the tannoy when we touched down on time.
No. Where it went wrong was at the very start; our train from Inverness to Edinburgh was cancelled, and replaced by a bus. No problem you might think. These things happen. Except that after winding tortuously up to each station on the Highland line between Inverness and Perth, with barely a passenger picked up or off-loaded, we came to a shuddering halt in Perth, already an hour late. And because we were behind schedule, that was as far as the driver was going to go. It was up to us to “fend for yourselves from here”, he said, because “I’m not sure if I have enough time on my tachograph to get us to Edinburgh.”
I only discovered this by chance; I got off the coach for two minutes to stretch my legs to see the driver shaking his head at a Scotrail employee and asked what was going on. We’d all have to get off the bus and try and find our way to Edinburgh ourselves, explained the man in the Scotrail tabard, which by train would take another three hours, with a change and wait in Stirling.
No-one had spoken to the passengers. If they had, they’d have realised there was a French couple on the bus who were already late for their next train, and an American family who would miss their flight back across the Atlantic. So much for making a good impression, or delivering on a timetable promise.
I asked how long the driver had left on his tachograph before he needed a break – “an hour and 15” was the reply, “I’ll never make it to Edinburgh”.
I decided that someone needed to take charge, so I got back on the bus.
‘Is anyone stopping at any of the Fife stations?’ I asked.
No. We were all heading straight for Auld Reekie. So I got off the bus again, and reported back.
“Foot down, let’s go – we can be in Edinburgh in an hour,” I said.
The Scotrail man looked startled. The bus driver looked furious. But he came back on the bus and to a round of applause started his engine. We arrived at Haymarket an hour later.
The problem wasn’t that the train was cancelled – I can accept that occasionally might happen. The problem was the total lack of communication from either Scotrail or our bus driver. There should have been a Scotrail guard on the bus, telling us what was happening, asking where passengers were getting on off, and phoning ahead to interim stations to find out if anyone was still waiting for our ‘train’. That would have saved at least half an hour of wasted stops, and would have got us to our destination and our driver back home to the Highlands all the sooner.
It shouldn’t have needed a passenger to sort it out – Scotrail should have stepped up.
I know – we should think ourselves lucky to have been given a replacement bus at all. Too many journeys to and from more remote parts of the north are cancelled without any provision made for passengers. And that’s simply not good enough. It’s not good enough that the rolling stock is old, breaks down and usually lacks heating. It’s not good enough that the promised Wi-Fi rarely delivers, and that the catering trolley runs out of hot water. And it’s not good enough that it takes over four hours to get from Wick to Inverness and nearly four hours to get from Inverness to the Central Belt, yet there are plans to spend money to shave another 10 minutes from the already speedy four hour 20 minutes between the central belt and London.
We badly need there to be more investment in the Scotrail infrastructure, and quickly. No wonder the A9 is so busy. But while we wait for investment, Scotrail could do with improving their communication with passengers. Because as we all know, manners don’t cost a penny.
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This column first appeared in six SPP Group newspapers week ended 20th October 2017.