For 70 years, until the ascendancy of the motorised lorry and omnibus in the 1920s, the train had been the primary way of making journeys too long for horseback or on foot.
The railway was also the vital means for carrying agricultural produce, fish and livestock from rural and coastal areas to market, and for enabling village shops to carry wider ranges of locally imported goods and provisions.
Mechanisation reduced the numbers working on farms, the nature of rural employment and urban workers’ holiday patterns changed, and so the use of rural branch lines declined.
Then, in an era when it was reckoned that railways should pay their way and not be subsidised by Government, many such lines were closed in the 1960s (some were closed much earlier). Small towns that once had ready access to the national rail network were suddenly left to the whim of the bus operators, and the impact of the private car, van and lorry.
Today we have gone almost full circle. The wider benefits of rail travel are well recognised, and slowly improvements are being sought to improve the lot of those towns and villages still on the railway map.
The excellent work of Community Rail Partnerships all over the country in promoting such lines has been a key factor in this change. So too has many local authorities’ realisation that building more roads to accommodate more cars is not a sustainable answer to the question of how to get commuters into cities from idyllic rural areas, or urban dwellers out to the country or seaside - traffic that benefits local communities through increased visitor spending.
Of course, not all rural railways offer amazing panoramas, while Britain’s superb scenery is not just the monopoly of rural branch lines. It could be argued that all train journeys are scenic in one way or another, and that such vistas add hugely to the enjoyment of the journey.
It can be argued (and indeed is being argued in at least one part of Britain) that the varied views through the carriage window represent an important and free national asset, one that can be marketed to and enjoyed by many more people, to the benefit of areas that have suffered from changes to the way we live over the past century.
In short, railways can be seen not as an isolated drain on public money, but as part of the economic solution.
Railway passengers who spend most of any railway journey looking out of the window and admiring the scenery - be that hills and vales, dramatic seascapes, or post-industrial era townscape - would appear to be a dying breed. Sadly, the majority of rail users these days seem to spend the entire journey either working or relaxing using electronic devices.
Yet it has to be said that whatever part of the British Isles you’re travelling in, the scenery is usually compelling. Those of us who do look out of the window all have our individual ‘most scenic’ lines, and Scotland is likely to feature often - it has more than its fair share of incredible beauty, still to be freely enjoyed through the carriage window.
The Scottish Government, which through Transport Scotland specifies and manages the ScotRail franchise, recognises that it has a wonderful natural asset that can be readily exploited for the benefit of local communities, the environment and the railway itself.
ScotRail operates all of the rail services that are totally within the country, plus the single cross-border service from Glasgow via Dumfries to Carlisle. The new ten-year franchise, operated by the Dutch company Abellio, began on April 1 2015, and ScotRail has rapidly committed to the Great Scenic Railways initiative that it has agreed with Transport Scotland.
The Invitation To Tender (ITT) for this new contract had been issued on January 23 2014, and stated: “As part of a sustainable approach to development, the Scottish Ministers wish to secure benefits for the wider Scottish community. One area that the Scottish Ministers wish to encourage is the promotion of tourism.”
While the ITT nominated only the lines from Glasgow to Oban and from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh for this treatment, Abellio’s winning bid took this concept further.
Announcing the new contract in October 2014, Scotland’s then Transport Minister Keith Brown said: “There will be benefits all over the country, with faster services between all our cities, new trains in the Central Belt, and a Great Scenic Railway scheme bringing more tourists to the north, the south west and the Borders.”
Consequently, the Far North line to Wick and Thurso, the West Highland Line to Mallaig, the newly re-opened Edinburgh-Tweedbank Borders line, and the Glasgow-Ayr-Stranraer line through Burns Country have joined Oban and Kyle in Abellio’s Great Scenic Railway Journeys (GSRJ) proposals.
“We have some fantastic routes where we have not been maximising the potential,” says Nesta Gilliland, ScotRail’s recently appointed head of marketing and sales.
“They are all magnificent, and attract a wide range of people - business, tourists and locals. What we are doing is trying to enhance the travel experience.”
As well as upgrading ScotRail’s fleet of Class 158 diesel units to the ‘scenic configuration’, Gilliland says the plan is to have travel ambassadors on board many of the services on the six GSRJ routes. These professionally trained and paid guides would be on hand to describe to passengers the various points of interest visible from the train (or potentially visible should the weather not be sparkling!), and to answer questions.
The end-to-end journey times on some of these routes are quite long, and so distinctive on-train catering will be available.
“We hope that mini-hampers of locally produced food will be delivered to the train, which passengers can order when booking their tickets,” says Gilliland.
All scenic trains will also offer mobile WiFi, available for use where cellular signals are present. In addition, entertainment could be provided on some trains using on-board technology so that passengers can access specially developed local information as the journey proceeds, driven by GPS positioning data and delivered on their mobile device screen.
“We are also collaborating with VisitScotland and the National Trust for Scotland, to be able to access the very rich tourist-related information that they hold,” adds Gilliland.
Of course, marketing the railway in this internet and social media age is vastly different from the days (not very long ago) when it was all down to a scatter-gun approach of basic leaflets and the occasional promotional poster.
Today, a high-tech and carefully produced website can easily attract the attention of individual tourists and tour operators from as far away as San Francisco, Shanghai or Sydney, who can be readily persuaded to consider adding a day (or three) on Scotland’s railways to their ‘Visit Beautiful Britain’ tour. Despite a necessarily restricted railway marketing budget, far wider (yet targeted) exposure can now be achieved.
Gilliland notes that the GSR lines have “very broad appeal. Whether you are a tourist, a commuter or on business… there’s something for everybody.”
Much information useful for planning visits to Scotland can already be found on the VisitScotland website, which will later include Great Scenic Railway Journeys links. Meanwhile, a “joined-up” collaborative effort involving Transport Scotland and local authorities will bring together “rail services, information on attractions, places to stay and places to eat, and an events calendar for any particular place or area - a one-stop shop”.