Thursday 15th December 2022
I spent a couple of days earlier this week in Inverness checking out some recent bus and train developments.
1. Request to Stop
This innovation is being rolled out by ScotRail on the Far North Line from Inverness to Thurso and Wick.
The idea is when passengers require a train to stop at a station designated as a ‘Request Stop’ they press a button marked ‘Request’ at the bottom of a large electronic display showing up coming departures located inside a shelter on the platform.
This relays a message to the driver in the cab of the approaching train advising that someone is waiting at an upcoming station together with confirmation which station.
It removes the need for a driver to slow right down and be ready to stop if required in the old traditional method of passengers raising their arm to signal to stop. Now, if no ‘request to stop’ message is received and no-one is alighting the driver doesn’t need to slow down.
It can save valuable minutes on a long journey between Inverness and the Far North characterised by significant sections of single track often resulting in knock on delays when one train becomes late.
Drivers are advised by a message if the system isn’t working at any station so revert to the old method of approaching with caution.
ScotRail started a trial of the new system in the summer at Scotscalder station just south of Thurso, Wick and Georgemas Junction and I popped up there on Monday to give it a try.
It’s not a very busy station. In fact it’s Scotland’s least used station with just 116 passenger entries and exits in 2021/22 meaning just two a week, which could well be the same passenger making a weekly journey out and back, so it was a bit of an odd station to carry out the trial with a likely use of just once a week.
The station only sees four northbound and three southbound journeys a day (one in each direction on Sundays) and I’d aimed to catch the 13:24 back to Inverness having caught the 07:00 up to Thurso in the morning and a taxi down to Scotscalder. It worked a treat, albeit I’d also arrived into Thurso by taxi from Georgemas Junction an hour later than planned due to frozen points at the Junction.
Despite this , arriving at Scotscalder in good time, I soon found the display screen and excitedly pressed the button at 13:20 …
… to see the green message at the bottom of the large screen showing the upcoming departure change to confirm the request had been received ….
,,,, and the train will stop.
And it did.
I was a bit unnerved when the departure screen on the platform removed details of the train at 13:24 and for over three minutes until it arrived slightly late at 13:27 the next train was shown as the 14:03 northbound to Wick. Reassuringly the display in the shelter kept the 13:24 on screen.
I understand the trial has been deemed a success and the system is being rolled out next week to other request stops on the Far North Line although not Altnabreac and Dunrobin just yet, the latter being closed for the winter in any event. It’ll be a very helpful development on this line as well as other lines dominated by request stops but I wonder if the message that the request has been received and the train will stop should be more prominent, than sited right at the bottom of a huge screen? I’d like to think it could be more prominent.
2 An electric bus city
Stagecoach announced back in the summer it’s investing £10.4 million in 25 electric powered Yutong buses to run Inverness’s local bus network making it “the first city in Scotland whose bus network will be run entirely by electric buses”.
The word “network” is doing some heavy lifting here as longer distance buses won’t be electric nor those routes numbered 10 snd above – some journeys on routes 10 and 11 operate via the Culloden residential area of the city for example, but I’m probably being a bit churlish to point that out.
After all, bus companies have got to plug their environmental credentials these days as no one else will.
The buses give a nice quiet smooth ride with comfortable seats all in an understated grey colour which I prefer to the awful garish red/orange and blue standard.
Leg room is good and there’s a nearside area for a wheelchair and space for a buggy on the offside. USB sockets are also available.
Once all the fleet are on the road it’ll definitely make a good impression but I wonder if all the double decks will cease as my guess is their capacity is needed at school times.
3 Inverness Airport railway station
The opening of the newly built railway station for Inverness Airport can’t be far off now.
I paid a visit on Tuesday and it looked ready to me although barriers across the pedestrian access point prevented a close inspection of the facilities.
Roadsigns have been updated although you can’t yet drive into the station either, as that’s also got barriers across.
The station car park had three or four cars parked up with a handful of the high-viz orange army present.
I was more interested in the access arrangements to and from the airport following my last trip and the numerous comments on the blog in March.
The footpath connecting the airport and station is now open and I can confirm is accessible even in wintry weather – I wasn’t sure whether it was ice and slush free because of the surface dressing or whether it had been gritted that morning.
The station is signposted from the road but the footpath has yet to gain signs at the airport end (presumably as that would be premature).
It’s a bit of a circuitous route….
…. skirting round the end of the runway with what looks like low level lighting from bollards all along the way, presumably so as not to confuse pilots to land in the wrong place.
It took me just over 12 minutes but I wasn’t able to start by the station itself as that was behind the aforementioned barriers but my estimate of train platform to terminal building (or vice versa) is 18 minutes.
At the terminal building end the footpath finishes/starts by the hire car compound.
An almost 20 minute walk is not ideal but at some airports you can walk that far from the terminal entrance to departure gate (eg at Heathrow) including through the maze that is Duty Free. But psychologically this is all out in the open and subject to the elements and involves catching an approximate hourly train service from the station. That’s why a shuttle bus is unlikely to work as the bus would shuttle too often for the train departures.
As the map above shows, the Dalcross Industrial Estate is just beyond the airport, so employees there as well as those working at the airport may well find access to the station to be convenient, albeit with a slightly longer walk, or perhaps a cycle ride.
It’ll be interesting to see how successful this new addition to the rail network becomes.
4 Autonomous driverless bus
Sadly my fourth reason to visit Inverness this week ended in failure but as a preview for Saturday’s upcoming bumper end-of-year blog, absolutely qualifies for the BusAndTrainUser Irony of the Year Award in that the driverless bus was off the road on Tuesday as there was no driver available to drive it. Yes, really. I’m not joking.
Stagecoach is operating the driverless bus and has three drivers trained in its use but this week one is on holiday, another sick and the third was unable to get into work on Tuesday due to the snowy conditions.
So I’ll have to give you a ‘here’s what it would have looked like if it had run’ report instead.
The Autonomous Driverless Bus project is being overseen by HiTrans (The Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership) in conjunction with stakeholders including the University of the Highlands and Islands (where this trial service runs) and Stagecoach (who provide the driver, or not).
It shuttles between the university campus and an adjacent retail park ….
…. using a section of bus only road also used by a smattering of Stagecoach’s city routes – hourly circulars 5 (anti-clockwise) and 6 (clockwise) and 27 and some peak hour only journeys on other routes.
It only takes about 5-10 minutes for the journey – it didn’t take me much longer to walk it.
I found a timetable showing a half-hourly frequency in shelters on the campus …
… although there was absolutely no mention of it (or any of the other many bus routes) at the retail park.
But that’s Stagecoach for you these days.
The vehicle is from the company called Navya and looks to be the same set up as ran in the trial in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford in 2017 …
… as well as in Lyon in 2016.
Both those trials involved a driver being present to keep an eye on things and to be ready to take over controls if needed.
Those ‘buses’ – they’re really pods – had seats for 11 passengers with room for a few more to stand, but it would get quite cosy if fully laden.
I’m not sure what the aim of the current trial is in Inverness. It’s certainly a novel way for students to travel between the campus and retail park, but current legislation dictates a driver has to be present on board the vehicle so it’s not going to save any costs and is merely duplicating the bus links already run by Stagecoach. I guess it gives those involved in the project and who see a future for autonomous vehicles some useful on the road experience of how these things work in practice.
I’ll report more when I get back up to Inverness and take a ride before the trial ends next Spring. That’s hoping Stagecoach sort out their driver shortage by then.
Blogging timetable: TThS – don’t miss Saturday’s bumper blog comprising my Annual Review, Awards and Quiz of the Year 2022. It’s a must read.