Scotland’s level crossings: what next for Dalwhinnie and beyond?
Dalwhinnie is one of more than 400 private level crossings across Scotland
In July 2021 a laminated notice was tied to the level crossing at Dalwhinnie station on the Highland Main Line by Network Rail. It stated that the following week the gates of the level crossing would be locked.
There was no consultation with the local community, landowners, businesses, local authority, Cairngorms National Park Authority or outdoor recreation bodies.
Network Rail claim the closure is essential for safety reasons. But their responses to our Freedom of Information requests reveal that in the past five years there has been only one accident involving a pedestrian at a ‘level crossing’ that led to an injury across the whole of the Scottish network. This accident involved a rail passenger crossing the tracks at a different station.
The importance of the Dalwhinnie crossing
The Dalwhinnie level crossing is hugely important to many people, both strategically and locally. Its closure has turned the rail line into a wall flanking the north-west side of the village, which already has the busy A9 and River Truim to its east.
The crossing formed an important link in the local path network which spans both sides of the railway and is much valued by the community. It’s the route used by thousands of hillwalkers each year to reach Ben Alder and other Munros. In fact, a car park had just been built to support this. But perhaps even more crucially, it’s the route of a historic right of way across Rannoch Moor, which pre-dates the coming of the railway to Scotland. This was well used even before the Rocket was a gleam in Robert Stephenson’s eye.
Network Rail wanted everyone to divert to an underpass which involves a detour of more than a mile. That’s a long walk if you’re heading back to the car after a big day on the hills. For the local community, the loss of a crossing point close to the heart of the village to enable everyday walking is even more significant. This YouTube video by horse-rider Claire Alldritt highlights why the suggested diversion is so unsuitable.
Frustration at Dalwhinnie
A year later, the situation remains gridlocked, and getting the crossing reopened won’t be easy. But we’re not giving up. Network Rail is refusing to either unlock the gate or install infrastructure which would enable safer crossings. It claims there’s no funding to upgrade an elderly footbridge and no funding and technical challenges with installing mini traffic lights such as are in place elsewhere, including nearby at Dalnaspidal.
Lined up against Network Rail is a united force of the community council, local businesses, the landowner, the council, local MSPs, the Cairngorms National Park board, and representatives of those who enjoy outdoor recreation including Ramblers Scotland, ScotWays and Mountaineering Scotland.
We recently had a constructive meeting with the Scottish Transport Minister, Jenny Gilruth MSP, to discuss the issue. She was very much aware of the issues and asked her officials to set up a meeting with Network Rail. Unfortunately, the responsibility for Network Rail’s actions lies with the UK Government, the Health & Safety Executive and the regulator, the Office of Rail & Road, rather than the Scottish Government, but we appreciate her support.
In our view, the situation at Dalwhinnie is now actually more dangerous, thanks to Network Rail’s actions, because members of the public are continuing to climb over the gates, sometimes with bikes. This takes them longer to cross the line.
Network Rail’s motivations
Network Rail’s aspiration is to close all level crossings to reduce the level of risk on the railways. They also believe that there is no legal right to cross the railway in Scotland on any of more than 400 private level crossings, unless you’re the authorised user (usually the farmer or landowner). Blue signs were posted on each crossing 20 years ago stating they should only be used by authorised users. And yet there has been no change in legislation and no explanation for the closure. As our recent Freedom of Information requests have shown, there’s no recent increase in accidents relating to level crossings. Network Rail’s predecessors even installed pedestrian gates at Dalwhinnie many years ago to make it easier for the public to cross.
In England and Wales, each level crossing is crossed by right, whether as a public road, footpath or bridleway. This means that a legal process is needed to close the crossing, which isn’t the case in Scotland. Before the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 established statutory rights, people took access on the basis of custom and tradition. As a responsible landowner Network Rail should continue to respect this situation. At the very least they should consult widely if any closures are mooted.
Other level crossings under threat
Dalwhinnie isn’t the only case where level crossings have been closed. In some cases communities have managed to fight back and get the crossing reopened.
There’s a campaign under way in Fife where the disused Levenmouth railway is being reinstated. Since the closure of the line in the 1960s, walkers have enjoyed using a network of paths on either side of the railway. The new plans, however, do not include any crossings along a four mile stretch from Glenrothes to the outskirts of Leven, despite the existence of three historic crossing points. A local group has coalesced around trying to protect one crossing at Doubledykes and has set up a petition to try and save the route. We would urge anyone living in the area to consider signing this.
Why level crossings matter
Without level crossings the railways form a huge barrier to access across great swathes of the country. But crossings are much more important than simply providing connectivity.
Without a level crossing, people may have to take a long detour along busy roads to get over the railway further down the line. This may increase risk, especially where there’s no pavement, as well as putting off some people from walking or cycling for their journey. We need rail bosses to stop looking at level crossing risks in isolation, without considering the risks caused by closure. That includes risks to our health and wellbeing, to the sustainability of rural community, to connectivity, to tourism. We accept there is a risk every time we cross a road but it’s deemed to be an acceptable one despite there being hundreds of pedestrian casualties each year in Scotland and many deaths.
There are huge implications for our wellbeing if we live or visit a place where only half of the area is accessible. It reduces the places we can enjoy walking in the countryside and can also have a negative effect on tourism and active travel.
It’s time Network Rail faced up to its obligations as a land manager and recognised there is a wider public interest in level crossings than simply what fits its own agenda.
You can raise this issues with politicians and also if you’re aware of a local level crossing under threat of closure, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Helen Todd, Ramblers Scotland campaigns & policy manager
First published 2 November 2022