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On board the Highland Explorer

Thursday 4th November 2021

When Abellio was awarded the ScotRail franchise commencing April 2015 I was really pleased to hear their commitment to promoting Scotland’s wonderful scenic rail lines including the introduction of better seats lining up with windows and other innovations including better facilities to encourage cyclists on board with more cycle spaces.

Six and a half years later and with a premature termination of Abellio’s franchise next March in sight I was really pleased to catch up with the first introduction of better seating and cycle provision last Tuesday, it having launched back in July.

Branded the Highland Explorer Abellio have arranged for five Class 153 coaches to be stripped and converted the space to a 50/50 layout shared between better seats and cycle storage.

Two of the coaches with one spare are running on the West Highland Line between Glasgow and Oban being coupled to the usual two-coach Class 156 trains on two return journeys on weekdays and Saturdays and one on Sundays (albeit the latter has been subject to strike action for some months).

The reconfigured coach can’t be added on the Oban journeys that run in formation to Crianlarich attached to four coach trains continuing to Fort William and Mallaig as six coaches is the limit for passenger trains using the line, so it’s only the stand alone Glasgow to Oban return journeys in the scheme at the moment.

There are longer term aspirations to recast the West Highland Line timetable and do away with train splitting at Crianlarich but there’s currently no time frame for this.

Two of the five converted coaches are therefore currently spare and one thought is whether they could usefully be deployed on either (or both) the Kyle of Lochalsh and Far North lines although both options have complications, the latter for example having an upper speed capacity of 90 mph but the Class 153 coaches are restricted to 75 mph.

I caught the 10:34 departure from Glasgow’s wonderfully rebuilt Queen Street station last Tuesday to see how the new arrangements are settling in, three months on from their introduction.

Normally platform numbers are only shown on departure boards at Queen Street ten to fifteen minutes before the off but it was obvious on seeing a three coach train – two Class 156s coupled to a Class 153 on platform 5, when I arrived at 10:00 – that would be my train.

The prominent bright coloured vinyl wrap on the Class 153 was a bit of a giveaway. This striking mural has been designed by Scottish artist Peter McDermott and rest assured the contravision bits covering up the windows are only in the cycle storage section.

I had a wander up the platform to inspect the train and noted the seats don’t exactly line up with the first four windows so eyed up the end table as the best option.

No one else joined me on the platform until the doors were released at about 10:25 and the departure added to the display boards and soon after I’d settled into my chosen seat I was joined by around eight to ten other passengers eager to bag a comfier seat than on offer in the Class 156 coaches.

However within a couple of minutes while cases and bags were still being stowed the train conductor/guard arrived on the scene to remind everyone there’s a £10 supplement charged for travelling in the coach to which I was rather surprised to see everyone pick their bags and cases back up and leave amid various moans and groans.

The way they’d all made a beeline for the coach made me think they were fully aware of its existence and I’d assumed the circumstances to travel in it; ie a supplementary fare. One passenger in particular complained he should have been told sooner as he’d settled into his seat which wasn’t as I’d seen it.

Personally I think it’s fair enough to charge a supplement as the seats are better and you do get a complimentary sandwich, crisps, biscuit, water and unlimited tea or coffee which can cost almost £10 these days. Although the sandwich selection was somewhat limited and not suited to my veggie tastes.

The Highland Explorer coach has five tables for four and two pairs of airline layout seats with moquette designating these are ‘priority seats’ making 24 seats in total.

There are no facilities for wheelchairs but these can be carried in the adjoining class 156 where there’s an accessible toilet; a small cubicle toilet is available in the class 153 coach.

The tables have a rather nice illustrated map of both West Highland Line routes (Oban and Mallaig) showing the popular walking routes as well as sample walking times between stations. A QR code takes you to more information.

The other half of the coach has twenty cycle racks including spaces marked for “small cycles” and “large cycles” where it’s also envisaged large items of luggage and sports equipment can be stored.

No cyclists joined so the train set off from Queen Street spot on time with me in splendid isolation having the whole coach to myself and so it continued all the way to Tyndrum Lower where I completed my journey.

Despite some light rain from time to time the gorgeous scenic views as the train makes its way along the Clyde and then from Helensburgh Upper to Crianlarich were as delightful as ever with Loch Long and Loch Lomond looking all the better for being viewed from a comfier seat!

I reckon in the summer season ScotRail will have a big hit on their hands with all 24 seats regularly taken and £240 extra fares income per journey banked. But to avoid disappointment there needs to be a straightforward easy-to-use forward booking and seat reservation system allowing passengers to choose their seat.

I found the current arrangements rather confusing as to whether you can pre book or not. I’m still puzzled. I paid the conductor/guard on the train who told me you can’t prebook.

One very important requirement is for a large poster on the panel as you enter the coach pointing out there is a £10 supplement payable so it’s quite clear what the arrangement is.

An ideal space to tell everyone about the £10 supplement

We maintained good timekeeping on Tuesday as far as Ardlui but between there and Crianlarich there was a severe speed restriction in place because of the danger of a landslip in the recent wet weather. This made us late into and leaving Crianlarich by about nine minutes which doesn’t sound too bad a delay, but the problem on a single track railway with few passing places is that such delays and continuing speed restrictions have a cumulative detrimental knock on effect in timekeeping.

And so it proved; my train back from Tyndrum Lower at 13:20 was similarly delayed by around ten minutes having had to wait for the Oban bound train to clear the track at Dalmally and then for an unknown reason we spent about 15 minutes waiting outside Crianlarich before we could join and become attached to the train that had arrived from Mallaig at 13:27. We had been due away from Crianlarich at 13:37 but didn’t do so until 14:01 then losing more time as we crawled through the speed restriction to Ardlui making us about 40 minutes late from there. We then had to wait for a late running northbound freight train at Garelochhead meaning we eventually headed back into Glasgow around an hour behind schedule. Such are the hazards of exploring the Highlands by train.

But at least there’s now the choice of a comfy seat to enjoy the spectacular views on selected trains and good work Abellio and ScotRail for that.

Roger French

BusAndTrainUser View All

I used to run a bus company but in retirement enjoy Britain’s splendid scenic delights travelling by bus and train, and commenting along the way.

22 thoughts on “On board the Highland Explorer Leave a comment

  1. I’ve yet to complete a journey on the West Highland lines without a delay of 20 minutes or more . . . I do wonder whether the timetable needs an urgent re-cast to simply allow more “just-in-case” time. As you imply . . . don’t schedule any tight connections. The scenery is worth it, though!!
    I can’t think of any occasions when the Kyle trains would exceed 75MPH . . . placing a cycle coach on the 10:56 ex Inverness and 13:46 ex Kyle should be possible, and would allow the other two coaches to be used.

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  2. Thank you for your interesting article.

    After travelling on Swiss trains a few years back, with their wide panoramic windows and sometimes even glass roofs, I’ve often wondered why we cannot make our trains more amenable to viewing the splendid scenery of certain lines here at home.

    Regarding the adaptation of the 153s, I’m pleased to read the seats are now more comfortable and most line-up with the windows. Are the new ones any higher off the ground? I found the seats in the original 153s so low, I was struggling to get a good view out of the window, even if I had one which vaguely lined-up!

    Along with greenline 727, I see no reason why the limit of 75mph should be a problem on the Kyle line, and it seems a pity not to use all the available modified stock.

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  3. Always find trains too crowded on Scottish “scenic” lines, whatever reasonable time (daylight hours) of the year, and far better views from Scottish Citylink/Megabus coaches with similar journey times in many cases. And interesting comment about train seat heights. Why are most train seats so low? Who can forget the horrors of Thameslink 319s (?) where Bedford and Brighton Commuters spent two decades playing “kneesey” with any Unfortunate sitting opposite them, and older people struggling to get out of their seat. Thank goodness most seats on most networks are now what I believe is called “airline” style.

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    • @Bob

      A lot of staff would agree that there should be charges for taking bikes on trains (as traincrew you see “commuting” cyclists using their bikes as weapons to force their way onto busy trains far too often, with no backup ever offered if you try to intervene, and rapidly stop believing that bikes on trains is a Good Thing), but the cyclists lobby has successfully ensured that it will be politically impossible for charges to ever be reintroduced.

      In the old days there was a charge for Accompanied Animals and Articles, which was half-fare up to a fairly low limit. It should be reintroduced for bikes.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. While having extra cycle space is a good idea, I think they have a real cheek charging extra to sit in a 153: easily the worst of the Sprinter type units IMHO. The windows are too high and too small. The fact that they have more comfortable seats is a cynical move, given the appalling seats now fitted to the 156s. That alone would put me off travelling over the WHL by train, and I love the route.

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  5. The worse problem for late running on the West Highland line is that people regularly catch the Sleeper with the intention of connecting onto The Jacobite Steam train at Fort William. This is not in any way a guaranteed connection, and I have known quite a few very upset people, who were also unable to get a refund from The Jacobite as it was not their fault they missed it. But the trouble with a more robust timetable is that it’s already quicker by road. About 5 years ago I turned up at Oban for the Glasgow train, but was told only those with seat reservations could be accommodated on the train, everyone else was directed to two coaches that had been specially laid on. We left just after the train, but got to Queen St about 20 mins before it, albeit we never had to serve any intermediate stations.

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  6. Abellio TOCs seem to have form for poor punctuality, having destroyed the timetables they inherited from their predecessors, removing all the little margins which had been added because experience showed the paper timings weren’t actually achievable, reducing station stop lengths to the bare minimum even in peak hours and generally throwing away decades of scheduling experience just because it doesn’t suit their plan.

    The reality of travelling with Abellio TOCs is trains that consistently run late, poor journey experiences because of little things (incorrect platforms being displayed is a regular issue which Abellio TOCs clearly don’t care about, for example) and a definite lack of interest in the day-to-day operation of the railway while they mess around with bandwagon jumping or PR fluff.

    Staff I know who work on the East Midlands franchise tell me that the company has absolutely gone downhill since the Abellio takeover, with timetables which seem to have been deliberately designed to destroy connections, turns of duty which make no sense to them (think 10 hour plus shifts, paid throughout, with only 3 or 4 hours actual work content), cancelling trains “owing to a shortage of traincrew” leaving the booked crews sitting in their messrooms, cascaded trains sitting on depots waiting maintenance because EMR simply hasn’t trained the depot staff on the “new” stock, and so on.
    But they do regularly get badgered to sign up to pledges with the “reward” of a lanyard or bombarded with messages about the bandwagon-of-the-month, which is clearly more important to the company.

    I’ll admit that I had driven for the old EMT franchise, but I’ve long since moved to another operator mainly because I felt that EMT despised competence, professionalism and railway experience amongst their staff, so the thought that their replacement is worse is actually quite worrying.

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  7. With this train they have a whole carriage dedicated to cyclists which is not earning one penny in revenues. That carriage could potentially be earig revenue

    From a seach on google it suggest the cost of a carriage can be 4!. I am assume a 20 year life for accountancy purposes so £50.000 a year. Annual cost of capital £54,000, bbual maintainace costs £70.000 so total of £174,000 year. There my be bit of extra fuel not thats probbably not significant. On the other side of the coin it could be argued that it may attract a few cycllsts that would not have traveled otherwise

    Thaf though is still a lot of extra costs that presumably have to be picked up by the fare paying passengers

    IK thinnk there should a charge for cycles of at least 40% of the adult fare and that cycles should only be allowed on trains that have proper provision for them which is not many. Cycles can present a safety risk to passengers and could cause issuee if a train needs to be evacuated

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    • “With this train they have a whole carriage dedicated to cyclists which is not earning one penny in revenues. That carriage could potentially be earig revenue”

      Not true. Only part of the carriage has bike spaces; the rest of it is the “posh seats” that they charge a £10 supplement for.

      Your costs are also rubbish because the vehicles are modified class 153 units which have been taken off lease by English TOCs, so they’re already paid for and pretty much life-expired.

      None of that is is secret, some of it is even in the blog entry you are commenting on! Maybe it would be good to try a little reading and research before posting next time?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. You make it all sound like supermarkets, on wheels.
    Just with pre-packed experiences, instead of groceries. Each to their own, I suppose

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  9. I can take the point that the 153s are fully deprecated, but if half the carriage are paying£10 supplement for the journey then is it fair that the other half pay nothing for their capacity.?

    The asterisk suggesting refreshments are subject to availability is a major disincentive to commiting to the journey. Do you take your own refreshments or not? Despite all of this, it is a good initiative.

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  10. Is there any first class accommodation elsewhere on the train? I’m just wondering why this isn’t marketed as a first class carriage, which would be a proposition more people are familiar with?

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  11. Gremlins in a couple of place names:
    Helensburgh & Garelochead.
    Despite all the publicity surrounding these additional units actually buying a ticket in advance is surrounded in mystery without turning up in person at a staffed ticket office.

    Liked by 1 person

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