4 mini blogs from Inverness

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.

We’ll see.

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

Photo courtesy HiTrans

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.

Roger French

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.

15 thoughts on “4 mini blogs from Inverness

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  1. Interesting developments! – thanks. Re the ‘Request to Stop’ machines – I hope there is a reliable budget for checking them and keeping them working; I’m thinking of the Network South-East ‘Permit to Travel’ machines, many of which broke down after a year or so, without any notice to staff on the trains or at any of the stations at which you might get off and want to pay.

    Re the Airport connection – why would a shuttle bus not work? If it was run by the rail operator, it could guarantee a connection at the station at least. Properly advertised, it should result in a lot more use of that expensive station. In fact there are many railway stations remote from their town or village which would benefit from a ‘station bus’ – perhaps that would be a better use for all the minibuses which will soon be on the second-hand market as their DRT schemes run out of money…

    Re autonomous buses; there are already many successful driverless vehicles in operation – but they are almost all tracked – lifts, cliff railways, the DLR etc.. For the Inverness uni scheme, perhaps it would be cheaper to install rails than to pay staff and have to cancel if they are unavailable!

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    1. I think the issue with a shuttle bus is that if the train only runs about every hour but at slightly random intervals and the bus journey only takes a few minutes, you end up with a lot of dead time on the bus and then loads of passengers all wanting to travel at once (probably having been hanging around at the airport waiting for ages) – so it isn’t a very efficient way to run things.
      That said, it looks as though the trains to Inverness and the trains towards Aberdeen will be reasonably well offset, so a bus running to meet each train eastbound and westbound might not work out too badly.

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      1. Yes … but what is an ‘efficient’ way to get people between the airport station and the airport? Make them walk twenty minutes with their luggage, in all weathers? My point is that, if the bus is run by the train operator, and results in a substantial increase in the number of people using the train to get to the plane, the extra tickets sold should meet the costs of the bus. Maybe the airport will contribute something. But it doesn’t seem very ‘efficient’ to build a station and then leave it to users to make their own way – I don’t think that will result in much use of an expensive facility.

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  2. Sion, in the Rhone Valley, Switzerland also had driverless Navya from 2016. Superb area for Postbus routes, highly recommend.

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  3. Departure Screens on Railway Station Platforms and at Bus-Stops.
    Why are late-running trains and buses “struck off” if they are running late and have not arrived at the appointed time?
    It’s very disconcerting, unless you have a smart phone, which (I understand) continues to show the existence of late-runners.

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    1. At railway stations, if the system is running off the timetable and doesn’t know where the train is, the train will be deleted off the screens at the expected time (scheduled time + whatever delay the system knows).

      If the system is linked to the signalling system, it’ll be deleted when the train enters or leaves the relevant track section (depending on how it’s been programmed); in rural areas where track sections are long that means there can be a period of time when the train either has been deleted before it arrives or is still displayed after it’s left.

      People say “With GPS they should know exactly where the train is…”, but the railway’s experience of using GPS for reliably locating trains has not exactly been positive. Plus of course there’s the usual Big Industry Inertia, which doesn’t exactly help!

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  4. 1) Request to stop machines : how much do these cost to install and maintain and all for 1 or 2 people a week!! Think how much good rural bus companies could do with that sort of money!

    2) Departure Screens – my understanding for buses is if it counts down minutes the bus is being live tracked, but if it just shows the fixed departure time it is not being tracked so disappears from the screen when the departure time has passed. Does this rule apply everywhere in the country?

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    1. 1) In a sensible country, like Switzerland, pressing the request to stop button turns on a flashing light which the driver can see as they approach the platform and duly stop there. This, however, is not a sensible country.

      2) Yes, pretty much everywhere in Britain countdown = real-time tracking, departure time = schedule only, no real-time tracking.

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  5. Denmark and ther Localtog north from Helsingoer – Hornbaekbanen.

    At Marienlyst station there is a post with 2 push buttons, one for each direction. Push the button, just like you would on a bus and you will see a corresponding amber train signal nearby light up so the driver see the yellow signal and stops at the station.

    This was 2019 so I dont know how long it had been there and am guessing more, if not all, request stops were like than.

    On the train, you stop it like a bus – press the stop button – the internal screen says stopping (like the bus) and the driver stops at the next station..

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  6. Like Clifford Martin, I never cease to be astounded at the cost base of the railways. The station has already got one electronic sign that will have cost considerably north of £10k – at 116 entries and exits a year, how long does it take to pay for itself, never mind the new one?
    The cheaper way to speed up journeys would be to have the driver open and close the doors – not this nonsense where the guard opens their door, checks the train is in the platform and then opens the rest of the doors. Works perfectly well in much of southern England…

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    1. “The cheaper way to speed up journeys would be to have the driver open and close the doors – not this nonsense where the guard opens their door, checks the train is in the platform and then opens the rest of the doors. Works perfectly well in much of southern England…”

      Anyone who travelled on guard-operated sliding door trains through the 1990s will remember just how quickly they could be worked; don’t blame guards for the excessive idiocy which permeates today’s railway under the pretence of “safety”.

      Guard operation is slow nowadays because they have to follow safety rules created by people who hide behind desks and wouldn’t recognise a genuine risk if it came up and introduced itself with a brick to their face.

      Southern England’s DOO is fast because it still works to the original 1980s rules under grandfather rights. You *really* don’t want to see what the safety brigade proposed for extending driver-only operation into the north of England. Suffice it say that it would have been noticeably *slower* than having guards!

      Even without their stupidity, if the rules used in southern England could be applied to the rest of the country, there would still be a massive expense involved which would far outweigh the cost of guards. I’m not talking about fitting platforms with mirrors (if that’s even still allowed) or cameras and monitors, I’m talking about the lesser known requirements such as the fitting of connected public address equipment which can be remotely operated by signallers or train operator’s control rooms (in theory all GSM-R fitted trains should have had that as standard, but in practice most TOCs didn’t bother to reduce the cost) and the requirement for the signalling system to be able to locate trains adequately; 10 or 15 mile block sections simply don’t allow that.
      Oh, and there’s a big thing about trap-and-drag risk at the moment which RAIB keep pointing out but RSSB and the train companies keep pretending isn’t an issue.

      A sensible compromise would be driver release of doors and guard close, but the industry isn’t interested in that (and that’s before thinking about what the unions may say).

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  7. For those interested in the costs of the Far North Line signalling updates, including the Request to Stop system, have a look at http://www.fofnl.org.uk/newsletters/22Sep/22sep08.php
    Note that a request to stop cannot be accepted at the last minute – a message will appear on the new screen to say that the train is not stopping. The older screens should be removed in due course.

    Regarding Inverness Airport Station now expected to open in early 2023, a similar active travel link will connect with the nearby expanding community of Tornagrain. The two destinations are currently served by buses from Inverness, which may still be easier than changing modes at the new station.

    The bus driver shortage mentioned is demonstrated by Stagecoach in Highlands posting an average of 50 journey cancellations per day (FYI today it was 34 cancellations on Inverness city services). So the 25 new electric buses, partly funded by the Scottish Ultra Low Emission Bus Scheme, may not be fully utilised as intended.

    An additional significant item of news is that the Highland Council will be operating new buses from January. Some rural public and school buses mainly operated by Stagecoach will be taken over by Highland Council and/or other local operators.

    Hopefully this redistribution will result in all the new buses having drivers available!

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  8. A small digression, which I hope RF will permit . . .
    In Oxfordshire, the plan to convert Route 250 (blog post 16/08/2022) has been abandoned (copied from Oxford and Chiltern Bus Page):

    Oxfordshire County Council proposed cutting its hourly 250 bus and replacing travel to and from Oxford with Demand Responsive Transport (DRT).
    However, it has now proposed to split the route into two separate services after the plans fell through. Kirtlington resident Nick Woods said villagers would still fight to retain the 250.
    The 250 bus travels to and from Bicester and the centre of Oxford, taking in villages such as Middleton Stoney, Lower Heyford, Kirtlington, Bletchingdon, and Hampton Poyle.
    It is paid for by contributions from Dorchester Living, which is developing at nearby Heyford Park, but the subsidy is set to expire. The council said the 250 is covering less than 50% of the costs it takes to run it.

    So a DRT service fails to even start . . . has the bubble burst at last?

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