Stromeferry bypass “shambles”

Problems with the queuing system put in place at the Stromeferry bypass while important repair work to the rock face takes place persisted this week as parents threatened to bring their children home from school early because of the long delays.

According to Highland Council, the presence of “special trains” on the railway line, such as the Royal Scotsman, does mean that the afternoon slots in the scheduled opening times of the ‘road to rail’ system can be missed. Last week, school transport to Lochcarron and Kishorn was stuck in the queue going to Plockton High because the minibuses being used were late for those openings. They were also delayed going home because of a late train.

“The delays meant that most of the children spent around three hours on buses for a journey that usually takes 45 minutes,” said Robert MacInnes from Kishorn, who is collating the complaints from parents and other road users on social media. “Some left their houses at 0700, not returning until just before 0600.

“A large number of parents are intending to keep their children off school because of the transport shambles with immediate effect. Others are willing to drive their children to and from stations to use the train service. Some are willing to see if the situation settles down. But children became agitated on the bus while waiting. Surely, we also have a child welfare situation. What if they need the toilet? Is the driver fully responsible for babysitting them?

“Another issue which relates to school transport problems are the changes being made to the opening times with no advanced warning. This does not include the planned changes due to special trains, though even these have changed at the last minute. On the first day of the daytime closures (Monday 17th September) the planned 1135 to 1155 opening only lasted eight minutes. The convoys on both sides had to be stopped before the queue had cleared because there was not enough time to get all the vehicles through. People who joined that queue well before the 1135 opening time did not get through and had to wait until the 1425 opening. Concerns have also been raised about people using bushes as toilets while waiting in the queues.”

This week, Mr MacInnes, who is a tutor at the National Centre for Excellence in Traditional Music at Plockton has to commute every morning, said the problems were continuing.

On Tuesday, he said there was again a special train that meant the afternoon opening at 2.25 pm could not go ahead.

He added: “Nobody has told the school bus company and therefore there is no transport home for Kishorn pupils because the bus company do not have the resources to send a driver and bus over before the 1155 closure, to wait for it to re-open at 1625. It was 9pm last night that I posted about the extra closure and the bus company asked me to confirm it straight away as they had not been told. The bus company and I, along with parents, have arranged a plan B for the school kids to come home on the 1359 train from Plockton to Strathcarron.”

In response, Colin Howell, the council head of infrastructure told the Free Press that last week’s “bad start” had made the community “quite rightly nervous” about how reliable the council are at getting pupils to and from school.

He added: “This is important work we are doing on the bypass. Clearly, we need to do the work, but we have stripped off all the protective measures on the rock-faces so our ability to open the road at all in very limited. I don’t know the scale of the problem going forward, which is one of the reasons we are hosting the open day in Lochcarron. What reasonable measures do people expect us to take? If getting the kids to and from school is a problem we keep having, then clearly we have to do something.”

Mr Howell also said full details of all the openings – including restrictions during the transit of special trains – was available on the council website. However, Mr MacInnes maintained that the current timetable is incorrect.

A spokeswoman for the council added: “Arrangements are in hand to install toilets and variable message signs giving up to date information at both sides of the works. All freight transport organisations were contacted prior to the work starting and were fully made aware of the weight restrictions. Staff on site are only aware of twp occasions since the road/rail bypass has been operational where a vehicle over the weight limit has turned up.

“Opening times are dependent of the rail service running to time – we advise people to allow extra time for their journeys and be aware of the publicised changes to the timetable that highlight the dates special trains will be running.”

The event in Lochcarron village hall today (Thursday) will involve a public drop-in session between 2pm and 5.30pm where council staff and representatives from the contractor carrying out the bypass work will be on hand to answer questions and go over details of the rail to road timetable. This will be followed by a sit-down presentation from 6pm to 7pm.

Disruption on the bypass is due to continue until the road fully re-opens on 24th November.