A mid morning gap in Argyll

Last weekend saw me stretch it to head up to Oban. It was August 2008 when I last went there so it was high time for a return to the place. Walks took me along the shore of Loch Etive and along the eastern coastline of Mull so I did spread out from my base and the weather was more obliging than weather forecasts were leading me to believe.

Because it is a long way from Macclesfield, going by train probably is best though an off-peak return is costly at £115.30. The way up saw changes in Manchester, Preston and Glasgow instead of suggested route options that oddly took in Stafford and Crewe. Though railway engineering was ongoing between Bolton and Preston, Transpennine Express continued to operate trains between Manchester Airport, Preston and the likes of Blackpool with a diversion via Wigan which involved tantalisingly slow movement through Wigan North Western station. That train was both busy and late so I was lucky to get any sort of seat on the thing with many standing. Apart from that, the other sections of the journey were fairly pleasant so I cannot issue too many complaints. The return journey involved the same changing points and was a little more enjoyable.

The changeover from Glasgow Central to Glasgow Queen Street is made to loom large on railway journey planners but in reality is something like a fifteen minute walk that I once did in around ten minutes. Doing the same between Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Victoria takes around twenty minutes so Glasgow’s main train stations are closer together and Buchanan Bus Station is of the same duration from the principal train stations so walking is viable there too.

Getting to and from Oban has improved from the three or four return journeys that I would have expected and I counted something like eight on summer weekdays. Many of these would involve piggybacking off the train to Mallaig and Fort William with train division at Crianlarich and there also are trains travelling solo to Oban and the 16:37 departure that took me there was one of those and that train left at 20:36 to return to Glasgow offering anyone living in Scotland’s Central Belt the chance of a longer day trip to the Isle of Mull while later ferries are running.

Speaking of ferries, it can feel as if Oban is better connected to nearby islands than other parts of the mainland. For instance, the ferry to Mull travels at a decent pace and offers up to seven each way sailings a day while Kerrera enjoys a very frequent largely passenger service only a mile or two down the road from Oban. Other islands like Lismore, Coll, Tiree, Barra, South Uist and Colonsay also see sailings from Oban.

Maybe it is a reality of the mountainous hinterland of Oban as much as the outcome of the Clearances but it can feel as if frequent bus services stick to the coastline. The 405 and 005 serve Connel and Benderloch from Monday to Saturday and there is the 410 on Sundays. All of these have an hourly frequency with extra schoolday journeys extending as far as Appin though the Monday to Saturday service 918 to Fort William could be a better bet for those parts so long as the timings of the three return journeys suit what you want to do. There also is an interesting if less frequent service 408 that goes all the way to Bonawe on the shore of Loch Etive and service 418 to Easdale and North Cuan with latter offering a ferry crossing to Luing.

Aside from the foregoing, Oban gets a smattering of Monday to Saturday town services going to the town’s more outlying fringes like Soroba, Ganavan and Gallanchmore but what hits me is how limit local bus connections to the likes of Dalavich, Taynuilt and Dalmally. If it were not for train and long distance coach services, the latter pair would be stranded altogether and that brings me to the title of this piece. To get to either of those places for commencing a walk, you either need to start from Oban around 08:00 or 09:00 or wait until just after 12:00. Whatever express service used to run around 11:00 is no more and I find myself challenging the idea of the 976 timetable (Oban to Glasgow) shadowing that of the trains, albeit with only three return journeys a day too. Even the summertime Citylink Oban to Dundee service only offers one journey each way when there once was two and that offered a gap filler. To be fair, Citylink did try to offer more connections in 2008 when it was embroiled in a bus war with West Coast Motors. Whatever innovation was shown at the time appears to have been lost since then and both parties did have the good sense to patch up their differences.

As it happened, the 12:11 from Oban to Glasgow was mobbed on the Saturday of my weekend away. It was if everyone was leaving at the end of the high season when Sunday’s weather showed what they were leaving after them if only they could see past the rain on the day of their departure. the inadequacy of the two carriage train was emphasised by Scotrail’s hiring of a coach to assist them in moving folk about. There also was a bother with luggage being in a wheelchair space and I could have done without one gentleman talking about the effects that lifting heavy luggage on him after a relatively recent operation. While sparing you all the details, I was glad to have a seat and to leave them on their way at Taynuilt. On this basis, having a train departure at around 10:30 would have seemed sensible and would have got me an earlier start to my walk too. However, the same train departure on Monday was much quieter and all the more enjoyable apart maybe from moments when someone started to watch something on his phone without headphones but that irritation has faded now. the weekend had been good to me anyway and I quite fancy a return sometime soon so that’s a good thing to be able to say after any trip away.

Additional Services for the Summer in Scotland

During the Jubilee bank holiday weekend, I popped up to Scotland for a few days and, in so doing, learned more about some extra train and coach services that are laid on for the summer up there. Of course, that wasn’t my real reason for going. The chance of getting some dry weather while sampling more of the country’s scenery was the actual motivation.

A copy of ScotRail‘s Insight on-train magazine alerted me to the return of a direct Sunday return train service between Edinburgh and Oban. It leaves the former at 08:10 and arrives at 12:06 having called at Haymarket, Linlithgow, Polmont and Falkirk along the way. It then leaves Oban at 17:11 and arrives back in Edinburgh at 21:09. It hasn’t started yet though and you’ll need to wait until the 24th of this month for the first running. It then continues until August 26th and the return fare is a not that unreasonable £36.

Scottish Citylink offer extra services for the summer season and, unlike ScotRail’s Edinburgh-Oban service, most of these are available now. Ones that stand out for me are service 913 from Edinburgh to Fort William, service 978 from Edinburgh to Oban and service 973 from Dundee to Oban. The 913 and 973 add useful travel connections around Loch Tay as well as adding to the service level west of Crianlarich.

While on the subject of Scottish Citylink, year round services also see their service level increased. For instance, there is a 978 service via Tyndrum between Glasgow and Oban and a 975 shuttle between the latter and Tyndrum where coaches between Glasgow and Fort William are met. Speaking of the the latter, they are expanded for the summer too as are their continuations to the Isle of Skye. While speaking about West Highland coach services, it is worth mentioning that the Glasgow-Campbeltown 926 service is operating as five services each way daily; three was all we got not so long ago.

Though these are the summertime service increases that stand out for me. For instance, there are extra ones running between the Scotland’s Central Belt and Inverness as I discovered on Monday morning. Also, Edinburgh’s festival season in August sees extra late night services between Glasgow and Edinburgh and there are events like T in the Park too. Well, it’s worth spending some time on Citylink’s website to see what’s available because I only may be scratching the surface here.

Apart from the above, there may be other summer only services on offer of which I have no knowledge and Caber Coaches’ service 93 around Loch Tay on Saturdays is one such find. If any come my way, I’ll get them noted because summer passes so quickly. With some of the ones that we have seen, there are those who may see that as a good thing but I’ll reserve my judgement.

Disruption in Scotland

Scotland still is catching the brunt of storm force winds and heavy rain as I write this. Bridges are shut (Tay, Erskine and Forth) and public transport services heavily affected. West Coast Motors are not running buses in Oban and Bute; the latter being due to a power failure. Sticking with the west of Scotland, the last Scottish Citylink departure for Fort William has been cancelled and that tells its own story. Glasgow and Edinburgh too have seen service changes as operators struggle with the weather. Even with that, most services seem to be running and keeping an eye on announcements from the likes of First Glasgow or Lothian Buses would be no bad idea.

Trains do not seem to have got too badly though there were some line closures around Glasgow earlier. Nevertheless, tomorrow will see the aftermath of what is battering Scotland so things may not be operating as smoothly as usually is the case. After all, there has been some structural damage done to buildings and infrastructure with a wall falling on a car in Aberdeen. At times like these, the only hope that can be expressed is that everyone is safe.

Update: National Rail Enquiries have on their website a page describing train running in the current adverse weather conditions. It looks as if there is more disruption than what I suggested above, such as between Edinburgh and Aberdeen. There’s quite a list of cancellations there with services such as the Caledonian Sleeper from Fort William and local ones around Glasgow being examples.

Update 2012-01-03: Yet another storm has hit Scotland again and with much the same effects too.

Buses can and do break down

Buses are like any machine: they can and do break down. It does need to be said that they are reliable for most of the time but, people being people, having a breakdown when you are in a hurry is the last thing that you need and some can vent their frustration at this too. Of course, the same comments equally apply to car ownership and usage.

If your journey is of the leisure variety, things aren’t so bad; you just alter your plans like I did when visiting the Lake District on Saturday. I was already running late thanks to thoughtless folk on the railway in Manchester and so was encouraged by the sight of the Stagecoach bus operating the 505 to Coniston. However, it had broken down so any thoughts of heading to the Coniston fells had to be placed on hold. I instead went on an out and back walk from Windermere train station itself and had an enjoyable day. Having had a number of ideas in mind meant that a broken down bus was never going to spoil a wonderful day.

I also use buses on the daily commute and the Arriva-operated 130 Macclesfield-Manchester service is the one that mainly serves my needs but it uses buses that are between 10 and 15 years old so the occasional missing bus can be attributed to a breakdown. I saw one broken down outside my house one evening and it did take some time for mechanics to appear and set it on its way again. Thankfully, new buses are coming to Manchester so we might be getting the ones that they are displacing and they would be newer than what is now plying the 130 route. I have never been on a 130 when it broke but the same could not be said of one occasion of using the 27 Knutsford-Macclesfield service when an Iveco minibus stopped up and we needed to wait for another to come and rescue us. Those buses are long gone and the 27 seems to be a paragon of reliability these days.

Having a mechanical failure in the right place helps if your journey is to continue without too much disruption. It’s not so good when it takes an hour or like the time when a bank holiday journey from Oban ended in the early hours of the next morning because of a missing Scottish Citylink coach from Fort William to Glasgow. Another Scottish Citylink case and a near miss was my witnessing the elements of gearbox trouble on an early morning 916 Glasgow-Fort William-Uig Scottish Citylink coach service; it didn’t inspire much confidence, especially given that this was on the edge of Rannoch Moor at the time. Switching the engine on and off was enough to restore progress though. That was unlike a rail-replacement coach service from Glasgow to Carlisle when gearbox failure stopped us in our tracks on the side of the M8; we were put on another vehicle very quickly if my memory serves me correctly. Quick rescue was also assured when a Dublin Bus vehicle operating the 67 between Celbridge and Dublin malfunctioned because we were on a busy thoroughfare. Quick rescue is one thing but it can fill up a following vehicle very quickly like when a Citylink coach on which I was travelling from Oban to Glasgow picked up West Coach Motors passengers from a failed 926 Campbeltown-Glasgow coach. Luckily, there was also a Citylink coach plying the same route and that took its share too.

I may have collected up a good number of incidents here but that is because I have been a heavy user of bus and coach services for over a decade. Bus mechanical failures remain rare and, with mobile telecommunications being so pervasive, help is always easy to contact even if it takes a little while to come. Allowing a bit of slack on the time front and possessing a modicum of patience can get us all through whatever gets thrown at us.