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Plunging passenger numbers caused by Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, prompts cuts to ScotRail timetables on Highland routes; the 'temporary' cuts to services will affect some journeys on the Far North, Kyle, and Highland mainlines and the Inverness-Aberdeen route

By Philip Murray

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A ScotRail train approaches Duirinish station on the Kyle Line.
A ScotRail train approaches Duirinish station on the Kyle Line.

WORRIED business and political leaders are seeking reassurances from rail chiefs after Highland train service cuts were announced.

ScotRail is planning to "temporarily" axe some services when the new seasonal timetables come into force in mid December.

They have cited plummeting passenger numbers, amid reports that four-fifths of previous rail-goers have deserted the tracks since the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

Rail chiefs have stressed that the cuts, which include some services on all Highland routes, will be reversed once passenger numbers recover.

But, with experts predicting that home working may lead to a permanent shift in commuting habits, there are local fears over the long-term effect of any cuts on communities.

Highlands & Islands MSP Rhoda Grant, who is also a joint vice president of the Friends of the Far North Line rail campaign group, wants to know that ScotRail is "fully committed" to restoring its mothballed services. She said: “Taking trains off is a move nobody would ever welcome.

"I can understand that ScotRail has a business to run however it is highly subsidised by the Scottish Government and I am really concerned by this downsizing plan.

"I remain optimistic that, once it is safe to do so, passengers will rapidly return to the railway and I will be seeking reassurances from ScotRail that during the pandemic there will still be sufficient services to allow for proper social distancing and I will want to know that it is fully committed to returning these services when that demand returns, and that it will do this willingly, otherwise communities could be badly hurt by this.”

David Richardson, the Federation of Small Businesses' Highlands and Islands development manager, also shares concerns.

“While Scotrail’s decision to reduce services to and within the Highlands will come as a shock to many, the pressure on them to do so is obvious given their claim that 80 per cent fewer passengers on average are travelling by train," he said.

“However, will all commuters who cannot work from home still be able to travel to their workplaces by train, or will some find that their services have been cut? They obviously can’t car-share, so what happens to them if they have no alternative mode of transport?And what about hard-pressed retailers? Many depend on Christmas sales for a large part of their annual takings, and a reduction in train services is just one more reason for their customers to stay at home and shop online.

“All-in-all we must hope that local demand recovers quickly and that the travel restrictions in England and Level 3 and 4 Areas of Scotland are lifted soon so that things can return to normal. We also need a commitment from Scotrail to reinstate services at the earliest opportunity and not to delay them or, worse still, use Covid as a reason to scrap them altogether.”

Explaining the reasoning behind what a ScotRail spokesman insisted would be "temporary" changes, the company's operations director, David Simpson, said that the country's rail network had seen a "significant reduction in passenger demand", with and average of 80 per cent fewer people travelling than before the pandemic.

He said: “Throughout the pandemic, everyone across Scotland’s Railway has worked tirelessly to deliver a robust and reliable timetable, with services across the country keeping key workers moving.

“We are currently in the process of looking at a revised timetable that allows us to continue delivering that reliable and vital rail service, but better reflects the reduced demand and changing nature of travel in Scotland and the need to ensure value for taxpayer money.

“The changes have still to be finalised and we will let customers know when that has happened. Our targeted approach will deliver more than enough seats to allow customers to travel safely.”

ScotRail has not publicly published the details of the temporary cuts it is thinking of making to Highland routes, stressing that the timetables are still being worked on.

But the Friends of the Far North Line campaign group said it had been handed information by ScotRail in which specific proposals were outlined.

In a post on its website – www.fofnl.org.uk – it revealed that these include the loss of eight Inverness-Elgin services (four in each direction) from Monday-Saturday, and the mothballing of several Highland mainline journeys. These include the 9.44am and 3.56pm Inverness-Edinburgh services and the 5.41pm journey in the opposite direction. The early morning 5.36am train out of Inverness will also terminate at Perth on weekdays instead of proceeding on to Edinburgh.

Two Inverness-Dingwall journeys (one in each direction) will be mothballed, as well as two Inverness-Invergordon services (again, one each way). The 11.33pm Inverness-Tain journey will be stopped on Fridays and Saturdays, with the same train's 12.46am Tain to Muir of Ord return service also be halted.

However, a Beauly call will be reinstated on the 6.33pm Inverness-Wick journey, and the 8.40pm Inverness-Elgin journey will be brought back.

When asked if the various times circulating online and on social media were accurate, ScotRail did not confirm or deny them. But they did stress that "contrary to speculation" the 7.06am Elgin-Inverness service has not been suspended and will reappear on timetables soon. They also added that the 7.28am service had only been "temporarily suspended" and not axed, and "will be reinstated when passenger numbers return to normal".

Commenting on the various proposals, the Friends of the Far North Line's web post said they "remain optimistic" that passengers will return to local train routes once things are safe, and thanked ScotRail for keeping them informed of its plans.

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