Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Freedom of Scotland, Day 9

Our final full day in Scotland, Saturday 16th, was planned so we could complete everything outside the Glasgow suburban network; we thus had a busy day of no fewer than 11 trains, with our attention focussed on the network of lines in central Scotland, through Falkirk and Stirling.

0921 Glasgow Queen Street to Falkirk Grahamston (via Cumbernauld), arr 1010
Headcode: 2J44, operated by First Scotrail using Sprinter 158782
Distance: 24 miles; walk-up price: £4.35

There are two routes from Glasgow to Falkirk: one is the Edinburgh and Glasgow Main Line via Falkirk High, and the other is the line to Falkirk Grahamston via Cumbernauld. We started Saturday with the latter, a route cobbled together out of a number of different lines, with the mileposts jumping around from 1, to 103, down to 97, then back up to 109, before falling from 26 to 24. This route, along with the shuttle to Anniesland we used on Thursday, are pretty much the only two genuine suburban routes which still operate out of Glasgow Queen Street high level.

The train was lightly used, but it was a Saturday morning, and we were heading out of Glasgow rather than into Glasgow, so that is to be expected. The line was rather scenic, though relatively slow; it functions as the main diversionary route for Edinburgh-Glasgow Queen Street trains, but otherwise sees a relatively light service.

At Falkirk, there are two stations: Falkirk High lives up to its name by being on a hill to the south of the station, and is served by trains on the Edinburgh and Glasgow Main Line every 15 minutes. The second is Falkirk Grahamston, which is rather closer to the city centre, but is served only by the half-hourly Edinburgh-Dunblane service, and by our stopping service via Cumbernauld (although it does see one train a day to and from London King's Cross, the Highland Chieftain, which runs all the way to Inverness and back).

1024 Falkirk Grahamston to Polmont, arr 1030
Headcode: 2P80, operated by First Scotrail using Sprinter 158732
Distance: 3.25 miles; walk-up price: £1.30

On arrival at Falkirk Grahamston, we hopped on a Dunblane-Edinburgh stopping service for precisely one stop, in order to get to Polmont and back onto the main line. The conductor on the service was impressed by our tickets, and how good value they were; I was impressed by the fact that she knew about the ticket, since these kinds of rover tickets are not normally well-advertised. We were pleased, therefore, to discover that Scotrail do, in fact, produce a leaflet about their rover tickets - the only other company to do so is Northern Rail.

1039 Polmont to Glasgow Queen Street, arr 1105
Headcode: 1R61, operated by First Scotrail using Turbostar 170406
Distance: 25 miles; walk-up price: £5.10

The Edinburgh and Glasgow Main Line - usually the E&G - is Scotrail's flagship service, with trains between Edinburgh Waverley and Glasgow Queen Street taking just 50 minutes, and running every 15 minutes all day on weekdays and Saturdays, with a half-hourly service in the evenings and on Sundays. The train was very well-used, with the three-car Turbostar having very few seats left by the time we got on at Polmont. What's more, the trolley service - not something we expected on a relatively short journey - was well-used as well.

Scotland's next big railway investment programme is EGIP, or Edinburgh-Glasgow Improvement Programme. Under the £1bn programme, the line between Glasgow Queen Street and Edinburgh will be electrified, as well as the lines to Falkirk, Stirling, Dunblane and Alloa, with completion due for December 2016. From then, trains on the E&G will run every 10 minutes, contributing to a total of 13 trains per hour between the two cities (up from 7tph at present).

Clearly, the benefits of electrification have not been lost on the Scots as they have the English and the Welsh; while London's suburban network is almost all electrified, and the two principal InterCity lines (the West Coast and East Coast Main Lines) are electrified, the rest of the network is still largely the kingdom of diesel trains. However, Glasgow's suburban network is the most dense pocket of electrification outside London, and EGIP looks set to increase that still further.

While the Department for Transport is starting to wake up to the idea of electrification - with a triangle of lines between Liverpool, Manchester, Preston and Blackpool to be electrified by 2016, and the Great Western Main Line from London to Oxford, Newbury, Bristol and Cardiff to be electrified by 2017, we still lag way behind the rest of Europe, largely thanks to decades of underinvestment.

When everyone else started building new electric high-speed lines in the 1970s, we built the High-Speed Train (HST): the world's fastest diesel train. It is no coincidence that we still hold the world speed records for steam and diesel trains: we kept using them long after everyone else had moved on! Just 32.9% of our network was electrified as of 2005 (and that number has changed little since), compared to 50% in France, 56% in Germany, 69% in Italy and 73% in the Netherlands. Only the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Albania and the Baltic states lag behind us.

Put it this way: all of our first five trains today would be electric if we were doing this journey in six years' time. I can only hope the same kind of thinking eventually makes its way south of Hadrian's Wall.

We returned to Glasgow Queen Street less than two hours after leaving it, only to head back out on a train to Alloa:

1118 Glasgow Queen Street to Alloa, arr 1213
Headcode: 2N67, operated by First Scotrail using Turbostar 170395
Distance: 29 miles; walk-up price: £5.15

The line between Stirling and Alloa was reopened just three years ago, in May 2008, for two reasons. One of the reasons was to provide a new route for freight trains: Longannet power station, in south Fife, was previously only accessible via the Forth Bridge; however, with the line from Stirling through Alloa to Kincardine re-opened, freight trains were able to be diverted via Stirling instead of via the Forth Bridge, thus releasing capacity on the Forth Bridge.

Secondly, and more importantly for us, it provided Alloa with a train service for the first time since 1968, with an hourly service running between Glasgow, Stirling and Alloa. The services are well-used: passenger numbers on the line have far exceeded all estimates, and the line is one of a number of success stories on the Scottish rail network.

We had 20 minutes in Alloa to grab a newspaper and marvel at the over-complicated automatic door system in Alloa station - the buttons to open the door were nowhere near the doors! - before heading back to Stirling:

1236 Alloa to Stirling, arr 1245
Headcode: 2N58, operated by First Scotrail using Turbostar 170395
Distance: 6.75 miles; walk-up price: £1.90

The trains on this line provide a much-needed passenger service between Alloa, Stirling and Glasgow, but they also provide good onward connections at Stirling to Edinburgh, Perth, Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness - well, pretty much all of Scotland really (north of the central belt, anyway). In our case, we headed on to Dundee:

1307 Stirling to Dundee, arr 1400
Headcode: 1A63, operated by First Scotrail using Turbostar 170426
Distance: 54.75 miles; walk-up price: £11.05

The line from Stirling to Perth forms part of the grandly-named Scottish Central Main Line, which connected Carlisle and Motherwell to Perth and points beyond without passing through Edinburgh or Glasgow. In fact, the southern part of the Scottish Central Main Line passes through Cumbernauld, and was part of the route we used earlier in the day between Glasgow and Falkirk.

There are no longer any passenger services which avoid Glasgow and Edinburgh - in fact, all the services between England and the northern parts of Scotland pass through Edinburgh, since Glasgow Central is a terminus and trains would have to reverse. However, the whole of the Scottish Central Main Line is still used by freight trains, and Mossend Yard, near Coatbridge, is the nexus of all freight in Scotland, being a major container terminal.

North from Stirling, the line runs through open countryside, but once we hit Perth the line curves sharply through the city, over the River Tay on a long, curved viaduct. We hug the north bank of what is by now the Firth of Tay for the twenty miles to Dundee. On approach to Dundee, the line joins with the line over the Tay Bridge from Edinburgh, and we got very good views of the viaduct itself.

1417 Dundee to Haymarket, arr 1522
Headcode: 1B32, operated by First Scotrail using Turbostar 170429
Distance: 58 miles; walk-up price: £14.15

After a short change of trains at Dundee, we got to head back over the Tay Bridge. The original Tay Bridge was subject to one of the oldest and most infamous railway disasters: the original bridge collapsed in high winds on the evening of December 28th, 1879, and a passenger train fell into the firth below, with all 75 people on board losing their lives; the event was the subject of William McGonagall's most (in)famous poem, which starts

"Beautiful railway bridge of the silv'ry Tay
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last sabbath day of 1879
Which shall be remembered for a very long time."

The bridge was reconstructed to a much sturdier design, using the original foundations; it was completed in 1887, and the bridge, over two miles long, stands today as one of the finest bridges in the country. A little further downstream is the Tay Road Bridge, which while a little shorter is still one of the longest road bridges in Europe.

We headed back to Edinburgh via Kirkcaldy, Inverkeithing, and back over one of the other spectacular bridges: the Forth Bridge. The designer of the original Tay Bridge, Sir Thomas Bouch, had got as far as laying the foundations for a similar bridge over the Firth of Forth before the Tay Bridge disaster occurred; after that incident, he was sacked from the job. Instead, Sir Benjamin Baker designed the current magnificent cantilevered bridge we have today, spanning 1.6 miles and over 100m tall; the structure has stood the test of time as one of our great engineering marvels.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the nearby Forth Road Bridge, a 1.5 mile-long suspension bridge built in 1964 to the west of the rail bridge. The planned capacity of 30,000 vehicles per day is routinely exceeded these days, with 40,000 being about average and 60,000 being not uncommon, which has, unfortunately, taken its toll on the structure of the bridge itself.

Moreover, the cables holding the Forth Road Bridge up have been found to be subject to corrosion: a study in 2005 showed the bridge had lost about 10% of its strength. As a result, it is predicted that traffic and weight restrictions will need to be in place by 2014, and the bridge could need to be closed as early as 2020.

This would be a disaster for transport in the local area, since commuters from Fife are all but dependent on the Forth Road Bridge, as the next crossing upstream is the Kincardine Bridge, a full 13 miles upstream. Closure of the Forth Road Bridge would mean that a typical 19-mile commute from Dunfermline to Edinburgh would be more than doubled to 40 miles. Hopefully something will be done - but probably not soon enough.

Our route to Edinburgh took us past Edinburgh Airport, with the railway line running right beside the end of the runway, with tripwires set up to protect trains in case a plane runs off the end of the runway. We saw planes landing at very close quarters indeed, and it beggars belief that, as yet, there is no railway station at Edinburgh Airport.

An ambitious plan to divert all train services in the area via a new station, known as the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link (or EARL), was cancelled by the SNP government in 2007. However, a new tram line between Edinburgh Airport and the city centre is under construction, but has run massively over-budget and is in a state of limbo, awaiting either further funding or cancellation - though the latter would involve ripping tram rails up out of the ground. Hopefully, the tram line will be completed, but a final decision has yet to be taken; if it is, an interchange is planned at Gogar, which would permit swift interchange between tram and train not far from the airport.

Instead of changing at Edinburgh, we turned back at Haymarket, on the western edge of Edinburgh city centre, to head onto Britain's newest railway line:

1542 Haymarket to Milngavie, arr 1707
Headcode: 2M33, operated by First Scotrail using EMU 334001 + 334002
Distance: 52 miles; walk-up price: £8.85

Until last year, this line was two completely unconnected bits of track: the Edinburgh to Bathgate line, and the Airdrie branch of the North Clyde commuter lines through Glasgow Queen Street. The A2B project reopened the 14-mile stretch in between, from Airdrie to Bathgate. As a result, Edinburgh is now part of the Glasgow suburban network!

Remarkably, the Scottish government prioritised the reopening of Airdrie-Bathgate - and the general improvement of Edinburgh-Glasgow services - as more important than completing the last missing link in the M8: the motorway between Edinburgh and Glasgow is complete but for a short nine-mile stretch of A8 dual carriageway near Coatbridge; this is just one example of the Scottish government repeatedly prioritising public transport over road investment.

The new line was due to open in full in December 2010, but the snow caused a few teething problems; combined with late deliveries of the class 380 trains, this led to the full service only being introduced in May 2011. The class 380s have now been put into full service on the Ayrshire coast lines, permitting the class 334s to be redeployed to the Airdrie-Bathgate line.

Both ends of the line feel like commuter lines, but the new middle section still feels quite rural, with a number of stretches of open land between the stations. However, new railway lines inevitably change the pattern of housing in the area, and I have no doubt that within a few years the stations on the route will be the focus of much development, since they have the enviable position of having direct, frequent, electric commuter services to both Glasgow and Edinburgh.

As with all services through Glasgow Queen Street low-level station, the trains from Edinburgh via Bathgate run through to destinations on the north bank of the River Clyde, usually either to Helensburgh Central or to Milngavie. Our train took us to the latter, where we had a quick change to the other platform to head back the other way:

1713 Milngavie to Hyndland, arr 1726
Headcode: 2F40, operated by First Scotrail using EMU 318264
Distance: 5.75 miles; walk-up price: £1.70

Between Hyndland and Partick, fourteen trains an hour run in each direction: this section of line is the only part shared by all the services running through the low-level stations at Central and Queen Street, and is thus the busiest in Scotland, and one of the busiest in the whole of the UK. We took advantage of this to change between the North Clyde services via Queen Street, and the Argyle line services via Central.

1737 Hyndland to Lanark, arr 1842
Headcode: 2B62, operated by First Scotrail using EMU 318255 + 318262
Distance: 32.75 miles; walk-up price: £3.95

The Argyle Line re-opened in 1979, having been closed for 15 years, to divert suburban services from Motherwell and Hamilton away from the high-level platforms at Glasgow Central and into the low-level platforms. Trains run on a number of routes serving Hamilton, Larkhall, Motherwell, Wishaw, and Lanark.

The Lanark branch is particularly curious: it is a two-mile long single-track branch line off the West Coast Main Line, and it's very weird to be sharing track with Pendolinos and other long-distance trains on a commuter train: unlike at the London end, where the WCML is six-track to Watford and four-track thence to Rugby, the Glasgow end is still largely two-track.

However, there are enough loops and branches to ensure that commuter trains don't tend to stay on the WCML itself for very long. The Argyle Line joins the WCML at Rutherglen; our train then followed the WCML for five miles, before heading off to serve Bellshill, coming back on at Motherwell. We then proceeded along the WCML for just two miles before turning off again to serve Wishaw; our final spell on the WCML of seven miles then took us to Lanark Junction.

1853 Lanark to Glasgow Central, arr 1956
Headcode: 2F15, operated by First Scotrail using EMU 318262 + 318255
Distance: 33.25 miles; walk-up price: £3.85

Having stretched our legs in Lanark, we headed straight back on the same train. However, it wasn't going back the same way; oh, no, that would be too easy. Half the services to Lanark run via Bellshill, as detailed above. The other half, however, run via Hamilton, Motherwell, and Holytown.

We ran back to Wishaw, but instead of rejoining the WCML we proveeded round a different loop through Holytown, then passed through Motherwell in the "wrong" direction - i.e., the same way we passed through it less than an hour earlier! We then ran round the loop through Hamilton and Newton, and rejoined the standard route just north of Newton.

After 8 hours, 9 minutes on 11 trains, covering 324.5 miles, we were pretty hungry for some dinner. On arrival at Glasgow Central, we walked the short distance to the Bella Italia round the corner, and reflected on an excellent final day in Scotland, before heading back to the hotel to get packed and ready for the journey back to London on Sunday.

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