Abellio wins ScotRail franchise

Friends of the West Highland Lines would like to give a warm welcome to Abellio, who will take over the new ScotRail passenger train franchise commencing in April 2015.  The Dutch-based group will take over from FirstGroup and we look forward to working with them in the future.

We welcome the exciting plans Abellio has for the West Highland Lines, including a long-awaited upgrade to more suitable rolling stock to eventually take over from Sprinter DMUs.  Our society has campaigned for a long time to have trains which are more suitable for lengthy scenic journeys, with air conditioning, toilets in every coach, seating aligned with windows and better catering facilities.  The introduction of a summer locomotive-hauled tourist train will undoubtedly prove popular and provide the ultimate travel experience over what has been voted 'The Top Railway Journey in the World.'

Sunday Post article

To celebrate the 120th anniversary of the Glasgow-Fort William West Highland Line this year, the Sunday Post published a feature about the railway, with contributions from Friends of the West Highland Lines.  The online version can be viewed by following this link  http://www.sundaypost.com/news-views/scotland/happy-birthday-to-one-of-world-s-greatest-railway-routes-and-it-s-in-scotland-1.623557


Visit to Yoker signalling centre

FoWHL committee members Nick Jones and Gordon Webster paid a recent visit to Yoker signalling centre in Glasgow, which nowadays controls all train movements along the electrified North Clyde/Argyle lines between Drumgelloch/Dalmarnock and Helensburgh (via Glasgow Queen Street and Central low level stations).

This includes all West Highland Line workings from the Glasgow area out to Helensburgh Upper, where control passes over to Banavie signalling centre using Radio Electronic Token Block (RETB) equipment. Our visit to Yoker allowed the chance to view the progress of several West Highland trains on the visual display units (VDUs) as they passed between the two areas of jurisdiction, alongside the intensive electric train services.

The signalling centre's proper title is Yoker Integrated Electronic Control Centre (IECC) - one of many new installations built in the 1980s, each of which replaced dozens of individual mechanical signal boxes. It uses a computerised system known as Automatic Route Setting (ARS), which automatically sets signals and points according to a prearranged timetable database. Solid State Interlocking (SSI) means that no conflicting train movements can be made onto the same defined section of track (e.g. a train cannot be signalled into the next section until the one in front has passed it).

Two workstations are manned each by a single operator, one watching over the western section of the North Clyde/Argyle lines and one the east. CCTV monitors are provided for nearby level crossings, which are also controlled by the operators. There are also monitors covering other areas along the railway such as the platforms at Glasgow Queen Street low level station.

On our visit to Yoker, we were able to track the progress of Glasgow-Oban/Mallaig services (see photo top right) as well as the Fort William-North Blyth freight train. All of these must stop at Helensburgh Upper in either direction to allow the transfer of control between the Banavie RETB and Yoker jurisdictions.

Our thanks go to Network Rail for arranging this visit, particularly the staff at Yoker for their help and hospitality on the day.

 A more detailed article can be found in the next issue of our magazine West Highland News Plus. In addition, Nick Jones is contributing photographs and video from our visit to the FARSAP (Film Archive of Signalling and People) project, which is being led by the Friends of the National Railway Museum. The aim of FARSAP is to provide a photographic record of all remaining signal boxes and signalling centres before they are eventually replaced by new Regional Operations Centres.

Photographs are Copyright of Gordon Webster and must not be copied without permission.

Timetable changes

NOTE TO TRAVELLERS - from 21 September the Fort William sleeper will now stop in both directions at Glasgow Queen St low level. It will no longer call at Westerton. This will allow a direct connection to/from Glasgow city centre without having to change trains.

An amended ScotRail timetable is being released to show the change, also including the second Sunday train to Oban during the winter (detailed in the last news item).  Travellers are advised to make sure they are using the correct timetable, as the old versions are still around. The new one can be found on the ScotRail website.

Extra winter Sunday service for Oban

There will be two Sunday trains a day between Glasgow and Oban for the winter timetable, starting this year.

It has been announced that the 1220 Glasgow-Oban and 1211 Oban-Glasgow ScotRail services will now operate all year round after previously being summer only, following some continued campaigning by the Friends of the West Highland Lines.

It is yet another boost for services on the Oban line, which have been greatly enhanced during the last few years.  Earlier this year ScotRail had doubled the the number of daily trains running Monday-Saturday, while 2010 had seen a new through service from Edinburgh introduced on Summer Sundays.

In recent years, the 1820 from Glasgow and 1811 from Oban have been the only trains on Sundays on the line, meaning it was only possible to arrive at either destination late in the evening.  The inclusion of the 1220 and 1211 services respectively will now give passengers a daytime option.

PLEASE NOTE - The change is not included in the current ScotRail timetable, which has the trains listed as running until 26 October only.  New versions are being produced to include the extension into the winter period.

West Highland Line Postcards

Following the success of previous issues of high quality A5 size postcards featuring scenes of the West Highland Lines, ScotRail have commissioned a new set of four. The postcards are handed out as a free promotion to travellers on the West Highland Lines between Glasgow, Oban, Fort William and Mallaig. This is the fourth set to be produced from images supplied by the Society's Photographer Norman McNab. Since the first ones were distributed to passengers on the lines from Glasgow to Oban, Fort William and Mallaig in 2009, approximately a quarter of a million have been handed out. The new set feature scenes from Loch Lomondside, near Pulpit Rock; The wetlands at the north end of Loch Awe; The London-bound Caledonian Sleeper near Roy Bridge on a warm summer evening, and at the Loch nan Uamh viaduct on a crisp winter day. Pictures of the latest postcards can be viewed below. Click on the small image to view at a larger size.


Rannoch station tearoom reopens

It is pleasing to report that the Rannoch station tearoom was reopened in July, after several years of change and inactivity.

New owners Bill Anderson and his wife Jenny have had a busy first week, proving popular with the many hillwalkers, tourists and others visiting the station in its spectacular scenic location on Rannoch Moor.  This has included both those alighting from the train and by car, at the end of the single track road from Pitlochry.

The tearoom is housed in the beautifully-restored West Highland Railway 'Swiss chalet' station building, providing refreshments in what is an otherwise isolated location.  It is most ideal for those out walking across the moor towards Corrour and Glencoe, or to the shores of nearby Loch Laidon.

Soups, toasties, cakes and cream teas are just some of the delicacies on offer to visitors, while the station's visitor centre has information about the wildlife, fauna and flora to be seen on the moor.  The tearoom is open six days a week (closed on Fridays) from 8.30am to 4.30pm.

Picture Copyright Gordon D Webster

Tree clearance at Falls of Cruachan

Lineside vegetation was recently cut back at Falls of Cruachan station on the Oban line, recovering yet another long-lost scenic view for travellers on the railway. 

An extended elevated view of Loch Awe can now be had from the train, after Network Rail removed a number of diseased trees along the short section of line in the Pass of Brander.  The mature native oaks - lying on the embankment between the railway and the A85 road - were identified as being a danger to road and rail traffic.  As such, this was a separate issue from the previous tree clearance programmes, which have seen Network Rail, Friends of the West Highland Lines and other local groups work together to provide better scenic views for passengers at various locations.  Glenfinnan and Glen Falloch were two areas to recently benefit from this work, with others including Loch Awe, Arrochar and along Strath Fillan.

Picture courtesy of Network Rail


West Highland Lines - an Audio-Visual Journey

An Audio-Visual journey over the lines from Glasgow Queen Street to Oban, Fort William & Mallaig can now be viewed under the 'Video' tab on this website. The presentation features the lines in all seasons and runs for approximately 15 minutes.  It features many pictures and videos by award-winning photographer Norman McNab from our society.


New technology for Pass of Brander

Fibre optic cables have been installed along the infamous rock-slide Pass of Brander, Loch Awe, in a pioneering project that could protect rail tracks (and roads) across Scotland.  The UK first has been tested on the route below Ben Cruachan, where in 2010 a ScotRail train nearly plunged down the 50ft embankment after hitting a fallen boulder and derailing.  A tripwire system built by engineer John Anderson in 1882, in which falling rocks trigger lineside signals, did not detect the boulder because it fell from lower down the slope.

A vertical screen of ten horizontal steel wires - known as ­'Anderson’s Piano' because of the humming sound of the wires in the wind - has always been connected to semaphore signals; in early years lower quadrant then to upper quadrant. These go to danger if a rock hits and breaks the wires (see picture).

Network Rail Scotland said its novel “distributed acoustic sensing” (Das) scheme could also be deployed to warn of trees falling on tracks, and landslides on roads such as at the landslide-stricken Rest and Be Thankful on the A83 in Argyll. The Das scheme involves cables being buried just below the surface on either side of the single-track line for six miles between  Falls of Cruachan halt and Loch Awe station.

The company said the system, which is monitored from Banavie Signalling Centre (west of Fort William), is sensitive enough to distinguish between obstacles falling on the line and other noises such as trains, deer and hailstones. It said the new technology could offer a cheaper alternative to maintaining ‘Anderson’s Piano’ and other anti-landslide measures such as netting slopes and removing rocks, which often require line ­closures.

Picture Copyright Gordon D Webster

Class 73s for sleeper train

GB Railfreight Class 73 diesels are to haul the Caledonian Sleeper train after the new franchise starts in April 2015. 

The 'electro-diesels' - formerly used on British Rail's Southern Region - will be hired by new operators Serco, to replace the Class 67s which currently haul the train to Fort William. 

It is seen as a surprise move by many, as the 73s are a type of locomotive never previously used in Scotland, or indeed in the West Highlands.  They are also a 1960s design, with many of them even older than the Class 37s formerly used on the sleeper.  However, five of the fleet are currently being refurbished and re-engined by GB Railfreight (GBRf), and it is these locomotives (classified as sub-class 73/9) which will be hired by Serco.

The Class 67s used on the train at the moment are subjected to many severe speed restrictions over bridges and viaducts due to their high axle load.  Class 73s are lighter, though it remains to be seen if they will be allowed to run at higher speeds. 

The Fort William-London Euston sleeper was formerly hauled by Class 37s, before the 67s took over in June 2006.  Years before that, North British Type 2s then Class 27s had been used, so the Class 73s are the latest in a long list of diesel locomotives to work the service through the decades.

Through the years, this class was mostly seen in the south of England, being used on both freight and passenger trains such as the 'Gatwick Express' that ran to London Gatwick Airport.  As well as having a diesel engine, the 73s can also use third-rail electric power, hence why they are known as 'electro-diesels'.

The 73s will also work the other diesel-hauled legs of the sleeper to Inverness and Aberdeen from next April, while GBRf Class 92s will be used on the electric-hauled section south of Edinburgh.  On the West Highland line, it marks another gain for GBRf, as the company also operates the regular Fort William-North Blyth alumina freight workings.

Further details about the Class 73s can be found on the Wikipedia page here

Oban school trains trialled

Official trial runs of the new Oban 'school trains' were made at the beginning of June by ScotRail and Argyll & Bute Council.  And the operations were said to be a success, despite a signalling problem holding up the very first train into Oban.

This was the newly-introduced 0520 service from Glasgow Queen Street, which arrives into Oban at 0835, timed ideally for Oban High School pupils travelling in from Dalmally, Loch Awe, Taynuilt and Connel Ferry.  The return working from Oban to Dalmally will also provide an ideal alternative to the usual school buses, timings below:

Oban depart: 1611, Dalmally arrive: 1654 / Dalmally depart: 1705, Oban arrive: 1747

The aforementioned services will start regularly conveying schoolchildren from August.

First HST to the West Highlands

The first ever visit of an HST set to the West Highlands took place on the evening of Friday 30 May, when Network Rail's New Measurement Train visited the Oban line.  The bright yellow former InterCity 125 is used regularly by Network Rail to assess the condition of the track on routes up and down the country, and this time it ran from Glasgow to Oban and back as part of its journey round Central Scotland.

The five-coach High Speed Train's (HST) formation included a coach with a pantograph, which is used to detect faults in overhead electric wires - clearly of no use on the West Highland Lines!  While Network Rail test trains regularly visit the area, this is the first time the HST has travelled up.  Despite being a common sight elsewhere in Scotland - such as the Glasgow-Inverness Highland Main Line - InterCity 125s were never used here, with one snag being that not all platform lengths and crossing loops are long enough for seven or eight coach trains.  However HST power cars have a route availability (axle load) of RA5, which gives them clearance to operate to Oban, Fort William and Mallaig.

The attached picture shows the Network Rail HST departing Dalmally. The power cars at each end were Nos. 43013 and 43062. (Copyright Ian Campbell)

Railway lifeline for Oban schoolchildren

The first Oban 'school train' ran on Friday 30 May 2014, albeit unofficially.  The closure of the A85 road between Oban and Connel Ferry, due to a serious road accident, meant buses were unable to run and the 1611 Oban-Dalmally ScotRail service transported local schoolchildren back home to Connel, Taynuilt and Dalmally.

The A85 had closed after the accident early that afternoon and remained that way for nearly eight hours.  One injured motorist had to be airlifted to the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow.  Road closures such as this are a common occurence in the West Highlands, especially after accidents, which leaves large areas cut off and the railway being the only accessible transport.

The 1611 ex-Oban and 1705 return from Dalmally are new services that began on 19 May and will be used regularly by schoolchildren from August, when pupils return after their summer holidays.


Serco wins sleeper franchise

Serco has won the contract to operate the Caledonian Sleeper between Scotland and London from April 2015.  They will take over from First Group, who have been in charge since October 2004. 

Transport Scotland has promised the new service will "transform the comfort of sleeper travel", with an investment of more than £100 million in 72 new state-of-the-art carriages, to make up four new trains.  These are not expected to be delivered until summer 2018, when they will replace the existing British Rail Mark 2 and Mark 3 coaching stock.  Spanish company CAF will build the new coaches - the same group that constructed the Edinburgh trams.

En-suite shower and toilet facilities are to be provided in business class berths, with a revamped standard class section as well.  In the seated accommodation, there is to be the option of both "cradle seats" and "pod seats" which can fold into flatbeds. 

Fort William-based Inverlochy Castle Management International will work in partnership with Serco to provide catering and hospitality on the new sleeper, in what is described to be hotel-style service.  Great emphasis is being made on giving the train a thoroughly Scottish theme onboard, especially the food, which is to include local produce from all over the country.

In addition to that, Scottish Transport Minister Keith Brown said: “The service will be easy to book and a pleasure to travel. This investment ensures an iconic Scottish railway journey will be available for all – from backpackers to business travellers. It will open the Sleeper up to a whole new audience."

The reference to easier booking is a crucial point, considering the deficiencies in the present online booking system faced by would-be passengers.

Certain other details of the new service have not yet been revealed, such as the train's rough timetable and joining/splitting arrangements at Edinburgh.  Also unclear is where the traction is to be sourced from.  Currently, DB Schenker Class 67 locomotives are hired to haul the train, but are crewed by ScotRail drivers.

The new sleeper franchise is to begin on 1 April 2015 and run for 15 years.

“The service will be easy to book and a pleasure to travel. This investment ensures an iconic Scottish railway journey will be available for all – from backpackers to business travellers. It will open the Sleeper up to a whole new audience. - See more at: http://www.transportscotland.gov.uk/news/exciting-new-sleeper-contract-unveiled#sthash.slNB8I5l.dpuf

Live Webcam at Dalmuir

West Highland trains are now being watched over by Big Brother, courtesy of a new live webcam installed just outside Dalmuir station in Glasgow.  Railcam is a new website which offers free access to cameras transmitting live video footage from the railway line at a select few locations up and down the UK.  The site - www.railcam.org.uk - also has live signal tracking pages covering most of the national network.

New users to the site must simply create a free profile to view the cameras.  Dalmuir lies on the route used by all West Highland traffic to/from Glasgow and Edinburgh, including freight and special workings.  All Glasgow-Oban/Fort William services and the Caledonian Sleeper stop here, together with regular electric suburban trains.


New books

August marks the 120th anniversary of the Glasgow-Fort William West Highland Line and it is most fitting that this year sees the release of a couple of new books about the railway.  One now available was written by one of our committee members, Gordon Webster: "The West Highland Lines: Post-Beeching".  It studies the routes to Oban, Fort William and Mallaig during the period of the last 50 years since the Beeching Report, complete with photographs at all the famous scenic locations along the railway (black & white plus centre colour section).  Much focus is given to the era of diesel locomotive-hauled trains, plus a history of the steam operation to Mallaig starting in 1984, and a detailed study of the signalling and infrastructure.  The book is priced at £16.99, 176 pages long and available online and in book stores, published by The History Press.

August will see the release of Dr. John MacGregor's upcoming title "The West Highland Railway: 120 years", published by Amberley to coincide with the anniversary.  John is another society member who has written several previous popular books on the railway, including the recent "Great Railway Journeys Through Time" editions on the West Highland main line and Mallaig Extension respectively.  The new book studies the Glasgow-Fort William line from the days of its construction right up until the present day.


New Oban Services Begin

The number of daily service trains between Glasgow Queen St and Oban is now doubled, following the beginning of ScotRail's summer 2014 timetable.  Monday 19 May saw a special ceremony held at Oban station to greet the arrival of the 0835 from Glasgow - one of the new six trains per day in each direction running Monday-Saturday (up from the previous three per day).  This was followed by breakfast and speeches at the Caledonian Hotel, with local Argyll & Bute MSP Michael Russell welcoming the new developments.  Also in attendance were representatives from HITRANS, ScotRail and Argyll & Bute Council, together with Friends of the West Highland Lines' (FoWHL) John McCormick and Doug Carmichael, plus James Wilkin from ACoRP.

The new trains were secured following a long period of tireless campaigning from FoWHL, plus pressure from HITRANS and Argyll & Bute Council.  The full daily service (Mon-Sat) is now as follows:

Glasgow Queen St depart: 0520, 0821, 1037, 1221, 1637, 1821

Oban depart: 0521, 0857, 1211, 1441, 1811, 2036


In addition, there is an extra service on weekdays between Oban and Dalmally only, which is being put on mainly for the benefit of schoolchildren in the area:

Oban depart: 1611, Dalmally arrive: 1654 / Dalmally depart: 1705, Oban arrive: 1747

The new early-morning Glasgow trains in both directions will be especially ideal for business travellers and students, while the evening departure from Oban allows a connection with the southbound Caledonian Sleeper at Crianlarich.  Extra Class 156 units have been cascaded on to the route to provide the rolling stock, following the electrification of the Glasgow-Cumbernauld line.

(Image Copyright Gordon Webster)


Great Britain VII

 010514 Glen falloch climb from Ardlui to CrianlarichOn the 7th day of the annual round Britain Steam Charter K1 62005 is captured on the West Highland Line, as it commences the climb from Ardlui to Crianlarich, on the evening of Thursday 1st May 2014. Snow fields are visible on Ben Vorlich which rises steeply above the line at Ardlui.

  Click for 2nd image

 (Viewers are reminded that pictures are copyright of N. McNab and must not be copied without permission.)   

04/05/2014 - New Timetable

ScotRail have issued the new summer timetable for the lines to Oban, Fort William and Mallaig. The timetable is valid from 18th May and features the additional Monday to Saturday services to Oban which the Friends have long argued for. Refer also to earlier news item below. Click here for the timetable.


10/04/2014 New Posting - Caledonian Sleeper Bookings

Caledonian Sleeper ex Rannoch StationSociety Committee Member Nick Jones has completed a assessment of the Caledonian Sleeper online booking system. To quote from the Executive Summary of Nick's report, " Online Ticket Booking Sites should represent a significant (arguably the most significant) for Caledonian Sleeper bookings. However the booking process is cumbersome, confusing and virtually inaccessible to inexperienced user such as tourists." Nick's report is thorough and professional and should be mandatory reading for present and future operators of the Caledonian sleeper franchise and all the stakeholders in Scotland's Tourism Industry. You can access Nick's report 'Online Booking of Caledonian Sleeper Tickets - Major Barriers to Use', Here

Recovery of Views - Glenfinnan Viaduct

Glenfinnan Viaduct, view looking east  As a result of another Society initiative, from this season travellers on the line from Fort William to Mallaig can look forward to an even better visual treat. A total of over 500yds of scrub birch and willow has been cleared from the approaches to the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct (now popularly referred to as the 'Harry Potter Bridge'). This will give passengers on ScotRail trains, and the famous Jacobite Steam Train, an extended view of the magnificent curving viaduct and the fantastic scenery of its setting.

The work was funded by Highland Council, Highland Rail Heritage, West Coast Railway Company, Glenfinnan Station Museum Trust, Friends of the West Highland Lines and German Film Company, Elbmotion. Friends of the West Highland Lines acknowledge Network Rail assistance, the support of Glenfinnan Estate and the contractor,QTS Rail Ltd.

Recovery of Views - Glen Falloch

cleared view glen falloch

Work has just been completed to recover almost 1/2 mile of views at two sites in the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park, at Glen Falloch. One site is a continuation of the previous clearance on the south approach to the Glen Falloch Viaduct and the other approximately 2miles north. Once again success is due to the co-operation from Network Rail, the support and financing by the National Park and the Society managing the overall project. The total recovered length open for rail travellers to admire the scenery as they travel by rail through the National Park now exceeds 4 miles.

ScotRail ITT

Representatives of the Society have met all five of the five companies bidding for the new ScotRail Franchise. The companies are Abellio, Arriva, First Group, MTR & National Express. The invitation to tender (ITT) sets out the specification for the next ten years and will be Scotland's largest public contract with a value of £6 billion.

Our Society welcomes Transport Scotland's ITT since, in addition to the extensive provision for the whole network (EGIP, Highland Main Line etc.) the ITT includes many of our aspirations for upgraded comfort on WHL services, embraces the 'Scenic Train' concept, improved marketing, vegetation clearance and other desirable features. The Society's response to the ITT can be viewed here.