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No easy solution to overcrowded ScotRail trains caused by booming Highland cruise ship market

By Philip Murray

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A ScotRail train on the Far North Line at Inverness Railway Station. Picture Gary Anthony.
A ScotRail train on the Far North Line at Inverness Railway Station. Picture Gary Anthony.

Rail passengers on the Far North Line may have to wait years for a solution to overcrowded trains during the height of the cruise ship season, it is feared.

Frustrated passengers called for action this summer after so many cruise ship passengers chose to use the local railway to travel between the port at Invergordon and Inverness that it resulted in some incidents where commuters were forced to wait for a later train because carriages would have been dangerously overcrowded.

At the time ScotRail said it would liaise with the Port of Cromarty Firth to see what measures could be taken to try to avoid a repeat and mitigate the impact of the region's increasingly successful and lucrative cruise ship market.

The move prompted hopes that additional measures might be taken to increase capacity on the route – either through extra trains or increased carriage numbers.

But those hopes appear to have been dashed by the tight logistics of the single-track Far North Line and the modular nature of modern trains.

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The Ross-shire Journal approached ScotRail after the 2023 cruise ship season came to an end to see if there was any update on measures it might take.

But in its response it appeared to all but rule out any major changes to the existing service until new trains are eventually brought in on the route as part of wider efforts to make Scotland's rail network carbon neutral by 2035.

It is not known when the existing stock of two-carriage Class 158 passenger trains, which run on the Far North and Kyle lines, will be replaced.

Responding to the Journal, ScotRail did not explicitly say that improvements would have to wait for new trains, but it did stress the "limited number" of trains and traincrew available in the Far North – both of which would be needed to accommodate either special charter services or longer trains.

And tit then pointed to the "opportunity" the new trains might open up "moving forward" when they eventually do get rolled out up north sometime before 2035.

Alasdair Smart, ScotRail tourism manager, said: “ScotRail is committed to supporting tourism and helping the economy grow, and the cruise market plays an important part in that.

“Responsible tourism is about balancing the needs of both residents and visitors. Any decision to add extra services to support cruise liners in Port of Cromarty has to be balanced against the needs of the communities we serve along the route, while providing value for the taxpayer.

“In the longer-term, the introduction of new trains that will come with the decarbonisation of Scotland’s Railway will provide us with more flexibility in being able to cater for the needs of regular customers and visitors, providing even more reasons to travel by train.”

The Friends of the Far North Line, which campaigns for improvements to the network in the far north, says it is both "frustrated and sympathetic" to ScotRail's logistical difficulties.

Its convener, Ian Budd explained that the Class 158 trains' modular nature meant it was simply not possible to tag a single extra carriage onto them, and that this would require two trains to then double up – an issue made extra difficult by the lack of spare rolling stock and staff.

He added that the line's existing single-track and limited number of passing loops – where trains can get by one another – meant the network was running pretty much at full capacity, and that new passing loops would be needed to free up the space necessary for additional services.

Network Rail Scotland is currently exploring the possibility of constructing a new passing loop just west of Inverness at Delmore that would help to increase operational capacity on the Far North and Kyle lines.

The Journal reached out to them for an update on the project, which is still at the costings stage, but had yet to receive a comment.

Mr Budd said: "We are equally frustrated and sympathetic about the situation ScotRail faces, and can't see an easy solution ourselves".

He added that the eventual arrival of new trains, which have yet to be designed, opens up the future "possibility" of increasing passenger capacity by being three carriages long instead of the existing two.

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