Thursday 6th June 2019
It may not rank as high as the West Highland Line, the Kyle of Lochalsh Line or the Far North Line in the great Scottish Scenic Rail Lines stakes but ScotRail have rightly designated the line down to Stranraer as a Scenic Rail Journey and very justifiably so too.
While I was in Glasgow on Monday in between consecutive night sleeper train travels I took the opportunity to take another ride down to Stranraer and remind myself why I ranked it thirteenth in My Hundred Best Train Journeys when compiling that list at the end of last year.
It’s not that Stranraer itself is a must-visit destination, sadly the town is well past its prime now the Belfast ferry has moved further up the coast, leaving desolation where lorries and cars once formed their orderly queues before boarding.
It’s also not that the first part of the journey south from Glasgow is particularly scenic either. It’s not.
It’s not that the trains are spectacular either; they’re unrefurbished Class 156s similar to those that could be found on the top rated scenic lines in the West Highlands and Far North prior to those being revamped and improved. But they do offer tables and great window views, so I’m not complaining.
The line’s scenic reputation comes from the eighty minute ride south of Ayr on the single track section through the lovely stations at Maybole, Girvan, and Barhill.
It’s not that there are lochs. Nor mountains. Nor huge spectacular valleys.
It’s just mile after mile of stunning Scottish countryside with rolling hills, rivers and plenty of lush green landscape.
The Stranraer timetable is not particularly attractive either. It’s an approximate two-hourly frequency but only three journeys start in Glasgow (six hours apart at 0808, 1413 and 1813) with most of the other journeys starting in Kilmarnock. Even those Glasgow journeys are bettered by taking a later train on the more direct route to Ayr, saving twenty minutes, and having a handy 6 minute connection in Ayr to the earlier leaving Stranraer train that went the slower route via Kilmarnock.
As my sleeper arrived late into Glasgow at 0815 on Monday morning I had no option but to catch the 0830 to Ayr and connect there with the Stranraer train that had left Glasgow earlier at 0808 via Kilmarnock.
Sadly though, Monday morning was not a good start to the week for ScotRail with a number of incidents including cows on the line to Ayr necessitating slow cautionary progress resulting in a 16 minute late arrival in Ayr thereby missing the Stranraer train which hadn’t been held for the sake of leaving ten minutes later if it had waited for us.
Still, on the upside I had a bit of time to look at the major work now in progress to renovate and make safe the hotel above Ayr station which began as an emergency measure a few months ago when the building was suddenly declared dangerous necessitating the complete closure of the station and rail lines in the area at great inconvenience.
It turned out eight of us bound for Stranraer were left stranded in Ayr and in view of the two hour wait until the next train staff summoned an eight seater taxi which arrived in twenty minutes and we set off for the eighty minute drive down to Stranraer, which aside from the wait, took about the same journey time as the train.
I’d travelled this route before on Stagecoach’s route 60/360 and it’s a great scenic ride with some lovely coastal views contrasting with the more inland route taken by the train, so it made for an interesting and welcome variation.
I’d never ventured west of Stranraer before and decided to put that right on this visit and explore the hammer head shape every geography student is familiar with when drawing the coastline of Great Britain.
This headland peninsular is officially called The Rhins but apparently the locals don’t call it that. It protrudes out towards Belfast in the south western corner of Dumfries and Galloway.
Luckily when I was in Dumfries earlier this year I took a photograph of a bus map displayed in bus shelters in the town as in the frustrating absence of finding a bus map online to refer to, this proved invaluable in working out which bus routes to travel on to explore both ends and both sides of The Rhins. Update is I found the online map after publishing this post thanks to a helpful reader – see below for more explanation.
The timing worked perfectly to travel on the 1155 one-return-journey four-day-a-week departure on the McCullochs Coaches operated circular route 412 from Stranraer to Leswalt, Envie and Galdenoch (see map above).
This was a lovely thirty-five minute run with just me and one other passenger who alighted in Leswalt leaving just me to enjoy the trip round. The route was slightly curtailed due to a road closure but it was still an enjoyable and quiet rural ride.
The Fiat minibus has an interesting staggered 2+1 seat layout ….
…. and a livery which seems to be the base colours for the ‘south west of Scotland transport partnership’ brand as I saw another bus wearing similar colours and sporting a logo to that effect on route 500 to Dumfries operated by Stagecoach.
When I’d investigated the SWesttrans.org.uk website previously it just linked to a collection of minutes and agendas of Partnership Board Meetings. Most odd. However, I’m pleased to update following publishing this report someone has kindly pointed out the link to “Service Information” on the website which has a further link to Dumfries & Galloway timetables as well as a link under “Sustainable Travel” to the bus map referred to above. Why do authorities make it so hard to find these things?!
Back in Stranraer I switched to one of Stagecoach’s routes in the area, the 407, which runs all the way down to the southern end of The Rhines at Drummore.
This eight journey a day route is shared with McCullochs Coaches who operate two school journeys and Wigtownshire Community Transport who operate a journey at 1700. We took nine passengers as far as Sandhead which is half way along the 44 minute journey (see map above) but the second half was just me on board although we brought two back from Drummore and another half dozen from Sandhead on the return.
Stagecoach also operate route 408 up to Kirkolm to the north of The Rhines but sadly the 1410 departure didn’t arrive, or more possibly the driver of the 407 when he got back to Stranraer st 1402 didn’t change the blind. There’s one other route, the 387 to Portpatrick on the west coast which is shared between Stagecoach, DGC Buses and Wigtown Community Transport and a convoluted town route in Stranraer, the 365, which Stagecoach also operate.
Another quirky bus feature of Stranraer is the Ulsterbus garage a long way from its normal Northern Ireland territory but historically here for the Glasgow to Belfast service via the ferry, which as highlighted already, has moved further north.
Having enjoyed the scenic rides up and down the ‘hammer head’ I decided to head back to Glasgow on the 1500 ScotRail departure from Stranraer; the scenery as far as Ayr was as gorgeous as ever and I thoroughly enjoyed the journey.
Frustratingly this train arrives Ayr at exactly the same time a fast train leaves for Glasgow making a connection impossible so I continued to Kilmarnock (photographed below) where there’s a more convenient three minute connection across adjacent platforms to a train passing through from Carlisle and which gets into Glasgow at 1737, whereas if the connection had been possible in Ayr it would have meant an earlier 1710 arrival into Glasgow.
If ScotRail are serious about promoting the scenic delights of the Stranraer line I would strongly recommend reviewing those tight and missed connections and promoting the timetable better – for example whereas the Ayr trains which offer either tight or missed connections are shown in the Stranraer leaflet; the Kilmarnock connections aren’t.
Back in Glasgow I was impressed that Caledonian Sleeper was ready and waiting to board passengers at 2200, the promised time, and it wasn’t long before I was in bed and only vaguely aware we were on our way at the scheduled departure at 2340 back to London Euston. Everything went well until around 0300 when we made a wakening emergency stop in the Preston area. It turned out we’d lost power but after five minutes or so everything had been successfully rebooted and we were on our way again arriving into Euston slightly ahead of schedule .Annoyingly my shower didn’t work (again) along with the toilet flush packing up during the night and only a trickle of water from the basin tap in the morning. I experienced the same plumbing problems on my inaugural journey at the beginning of last month which indicates snagging issues are still very much to the fore on the new sleeper carriages.
In fact chatting to staff, they confirmed all is not going well, with continuing porblems and staff consequently taking flack from disgruntled passengers who’ve paid a handsome price for these en-suite extras. Sadly some staff are apparently having to go off sick due to the level of stress. It’s obviously a trying time for a Serco and Caledonian Sleeper and although disappointing, it’s a sensible decision to postpone converting the Highlander route to the new coaches until these problems are ironed out. I hear 7th July is the latest date envisgaed for their introduction.
Someone must be seriously losing out financially due to these delays and problems as the uptake in revenue to justify the new coaches must be well below budget as well as compensation being paid out for failing to deliver. Let’s hope all is resolved soon.
PS: yes that timetable case in Stranraer, captured in a photo above, was a bit disheveled…!