Car culture rules in Fort William

I was at Fort William station with a couple of hours to spare on saturday after doing the 3 peaks walk and decided to wander into town. Amazingly, in such a small town, there is a pedestrian underpass – complete with busker, a rather upmarket one who was selling his own CDs and sang elegantly – between the station and the steps. This is to get under a dual carriageway built, presumably, to deal with the fantastic traffic jams they must get in the town with a population of all of 9900 at the last census.

This really is the height of car culture madness. Not, though, that it helps the cars much either. The dual carriageway means that the buses had to go past the station and come back on the other side in order to pick us up. No one benefits from this arrangement which must have replace – older readers please advise – a conventional pedestrian crossing which could now be a Pelican crossing. All for the sake of not making cars stop for people crossing into a station where a train an hour would be a peak period. Certainly it made me reluctant to go into town and must be a great deterrent to other potential shoppers. I just so wonder what went on in the heads of the people who devised the scheme. And, if still alive, do they realise their mistake.

At least according to the New York Times, in Europe we are reversing these trends: Not fast enough, tho. I’m afraid they are being rather optimistic, and it will take decades to reverse the madness of the Fort Williams of this world.

Legend has it that Westinghouse witnessed a train accident where two engineers saw one another, but were unable to stop their trains in time using the existing brakes.
  • Anonymous

    You should see the queues in and out of Morrisons car park which often spill out onto the main road at the height of summer!! 

    Yes I think the 1960s planners have a lot to answer for in the madness in the way they brought the A82 in and out of the town, given its position as a major hub for the West Highlands.  The reality is there is no other route that the road could take.

    Is there a car culture in Fort William?  Well – like many things I don’t think that it is intentional on the part of car users again – it has just evolved that way.  There are only three trains a day to Glasgow, which takes well over 3 hours, whilst the A82 is about 2 and a half even on a bad day.  And the trains are piffling little Sprinters with little luggage/cycle space which has to be booked in advance.  Given FW is such a major hub for outdoor activities it’s hardly surprising everyone uses a car.

  • Fort William really is the turd in the crown of the Highlands.  I don’t know why the Highland tourist board devote so much effort to pushing Fort William as a brand — e.g. with Jimmy Saville’s “outdoor capital of the UK” video:

    What they don’t show you in the tourist board video, but which you will have noticed when you got through the underpass, is that the pedestrianised high street where they filmed the BMX tricks is a veritable forest of “no cycling” signs — even the short section which is actually open to traffic (presumably because the taxi lobby fought pedestrianisation and demanded that they at least be given a short section for a taxi rank).  Anybody booking a trip to Fort William in the hope of having some of the fun shown in the video is going to be disappointed.

    And the station itself is pretty grim stop on an otherwise absolutely fantastic line.  Lounge car in the sleeper out over Rannoch Moor as the sun goes down at this time of year is the best scheduled train ride in the country.

    The area around the town is lovely, Glen Coe and Rannoch Moor especially so, but spoiled by the trunk road.  I’ve cycled over the moor a couple of times, but have difficulty recommending it.  Without the traffic it would be the best bike ride in the country….

  • Anonymous

    Congratulations on bagging the Ben B.T.W !!!  Been a few years since I was last up it.

  • Ian Raymond

    Well done on completing the Three Peaks Christian – surprised after all that you had strength left to wander into town! (BTW, if The Ben is your only experience of Munro Bagging, there’s plenty of others far more interesting – Ben Cruachan and Ben Hope would be my recommendations… but I digress).

    Certainly Fort William is not the most attractive of town centres even once through the underpass – though with the A82 forming a barrier to the foreshore and some of the current architecture  I’m not really sure how it could be improved!

    On the other hand, I can understand the town being so car dependant 1) As Rapid says below, for long distance travel the rail offer really IS too slow and low quality, especially with the constant ‘ear massage’ from being on a DMU (+ note that despite repeated requests from regular users the sleeper – a truly wonderful journey – doesn’t run sat night, rendering it useless for family holidays when accom providers only have Sat-Sat bookings!) 2) For more local traffic the resident population base is just too sparse to support anything better. Indeed, even the local bus service seeems more aimed at just ticking the ‘socially necessary’ box rather than an attempt at a usuable alternative.

    Depite the unattractive ‘gateway’ to the town, I’ve always found it a friendly enough place especially out of season, so I hope it doesn’t deter you from returning!

  • Dave H

    Of course before the dual carriageway was built the railway used the (now) road solum to get much closer to the centre of town and deliver passengers to the deep-water pier. 

    Using the Fort William-Euston service is a challenge – Train crew have called a train booking call centre and been informed that the train they are working on does not exist (because it does not appear on the call centre screens).  Booking a bike and a seat requires 4 ‘seat’ reservations against a single rail journey (the software only permits one seat reservation per ticket for each stage of a journey, and only where the TOC pays to have the trains ‘reservable’) hence you cannot book this online nor with any call centre bar Scotrail’s dedicated operations in Fort William and Plymouth.  Additionally the fares system does not recognise journeys such as Westerton to Crewe as valid routes with a valid fare (despite a train running via this route)*, no wonder so few of the Fort William seats seem to be filled when I catch the train at Westerton, as it delivers roughly the same service as the discontinued Glasgow/Edinburgh-to Penzance sleeper by changing at Crewe and excellent early arrivals at many places North of London. * I’ve taken to booking Falkirk Grahamston to Crewe as this fare is recognised, and buying a Glasgow-Falkirk single to fix the failure of the system as it stands. 

  • Anonymous

    Re – the non Saturday running of the Sleeper – I believe the whole rationale behind it goes back to BR days and was to stop drunken football fans going down to London on Saturday, getting rat-a**sed and using the Sleeper to get back to Scotland, and leaving the train in an absolute mess. It’s the same reason why the Friday evening Lowland train leaves Euston at 11 instead of midnight.

    Personally I don’t see why they can’t run the Highland Sleeper on a Saturday, given it leaves Euston at 8pm, it doesn’t stop at either Glasgow or Edinburgh and drops you off at the intermediate stations at pretty unsociable times in the morning.  That’s enough to put off the casual users anyway (no pun intended), you could even limit the availability of Advance fares just to make sure.

    Even if they did Saturday running during peak summer holiday season when the football issue isn’t there it”d make sense, but what do I know….

  • Rhydgaled

    Haverfordwest might have a larger population, but you can’t get from the station to town without crossing a dual carrigeway there either (you do have a choice which of 2 dual carrigeways to cross, but there’s no underpass on either). Also, since the bus station is on one side of one of the dual carrigeways the buses do alot of going right round the roundabouts.

  • Fandroid

    I’m surprised that Christian hadn’t been there before. The Highlands would not exist any more but for the car culture. The population density is such that public transport would have to be heavily subsidised by the central-belt cities (as I’m sure it is anyway!). Highway engineers’ brains cannot cope with the realities of remote places. The road design was probably carried out in Glasgow (or maybe in Inverness- which is still orders of magnitude more sophisticated than Fort William)  so they turned out a standard town/city layout, almost certainly paid for by massive grants from somewhere richer. The one public transport thing that really still seemed to work when I was there was the Scottish Citylink bus from Inverness to Glasgow. Not very frequent, but otherwise providing a brilliant service down the west coast.

  • Percy

     I’m surprised also as I thought anyone with an interest in railways such as Christian would have made this journey much sooner in life, I was also surprised a couple of years back to hear Christian say that he had finally visited the Yorkshire Dales and ridden the Settle Carlisle line for a video he was making. Christian was the three Peaks Challenge your first taste of the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway ? and also the Cumbrian Coast Railway, if so its a pity Arsnside viaduct is closed as you could have travelled its full length from Carnforth to Carlisle. A man of your status – UKs Foremost Rail Journalist  –  needs to get out of the city and start visiting the true north more often, just so you know, Manchester is actually in the Midland, Birmingham is in the South. You cant go on not visiting these historic and scenic lines or only visitng them once, they are part railway folklore. Please tell us you’ve been on the Cambrian and the Central Wales.

  • Anonymous

    I am a transport journalist, not a travel one, so it is not necessarily
    essential for me to have seen every bit of the British rail network to
    be able to understand its role and its history. But in fact, rest assured, I have. Actually, it’s my third 3 peaks and I have travelled all the main lines in Scotland apart, sadly, from the West Highland section out to Mallaig. And yes, I have been several times on the central Wales and both the Cumbrian Coast Cambrian, and the Welsh Highland for that matter. Therefore, I have ‘bashed’ most of the surviving British rail network.

  • Percy

     I’ll get me coat !

  • philip

    I always thought that  a major reason for discontinuing the sleeper service on saturday nights was to allow the northern  sections of the west coast mainline to be closed overnight for routine engineering work,even if british rail never said this publicly at the time . 

  • Ian Raymond

    Think you could be right on that Philip; I’m afraid yet another case of the industry offering the customer what it is convenient for it to provide, rather than providing what the customer needs.