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Anger in Dalwhinnie after well-used level crossing is locked by Network Rail

By Gavin Musgrove

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MAKING THEIR POINT: Campaigners at the level crossing at the end of Ben Alder road yesterday morning ahead of its closure.
MAKING THEIR POINT: Campaigners at the level crossing at the end of Ben Alder road yesterday morning ahead of its closure.

Network Rail has been accused of acting in a high-handed manner after locking the gates to the public without any consultation at a level crossing in Dalwhinnie serving locals and hill-goers.

Community leaders and businesses are angered Ben Alder car park is now out of bounds, and fear it could hit visitor numbers and income in the small village.

They believe many pedestrians and cyclists will continue to use the point to cross the Highland main rail line – as proved the case during a recent temporary closure – and put themselves in greater danger following the move on Wednesday.

The crossing has been used for more than 30 years without incident, and is on a core path route also recommended in hillwalking guidebooks for Ben Alder and surrounding Munros.

There has been no public consultation – not even with landowners Ben Alder Estate – other than a late notice informing the public of the closure pinned to the metal gates.

Dalwhinnie Community Council chairwoman Jen Dickinson said: “The impact on small new local businesses such as the Dalwhinnie Old School Hostel, The Lodge café bar and the Loch Ericht Hotel will be significant and cannot go unchallenged.

“Locking up the crossing is downright dangerous, and will result in greater safety concerns with dog walkers, bikers and hill-goers with outdoor equipment climbing over the gates as they were doing recently when the gates were locked for essential repairs after the train derailment.

“It is an accident waiting to happen. People will not walk or bike to the underpass nearly one mile away at the other end of Dalwhinnie, and it cannot be used by cars either and has no parking.

“Network Rail has removed a local right of access, which has been there for many years without any consultation. We are united in taking a stance against this closure.”

Community councillor Simon Conroy said there can be up to 30 cars in Ben Alder car park at any one time: “Recently it has been absolutely mobbed.”

Emergency services and the estate will still retain access over the crossing at the end of Ben Alder road.

The Netowrk Rail sign which was put up at the crossing at the end of last week.
The Netowrk Rail sign which was put up at the crossing at the end of last week.

Joanna Riddell, who owns The Lodge café bar, said the crossing closure will hit their fledgling business geared towards passing walkers and bikers.

“It is a nightmare,” she said.

“There has never been a close call at the crossing. It is really unnecessary.

“As long as the rail line has been here, people have been able to cross it, and Network Rail has done this so underhandedly with no meetings. It is a real disgrace; they are not listening to local people and what is needed to survive here.

“We are a tiny community and we are trying our best to bring Dalwhinnie back to life.”

Highland Council convener Bill Lobban said he was very concerned about the impact on the local community.

He said: “Decisions like this should have involved full community consultation, and it is rather high handed of Network Rail to just blunder their way through this.”

Ben Alder Estate factor Tim Atkinson said their access pre-dates the railway so it had to be maintained, but they are fully behind the campaign.

He said: “We support the community’s effort to get this resolved. This is the obvious way to cross for anyone at that end of the village.

“I don’t think Network Rail really understand that people will still cross there whether the gates are locked or not.”

He confirmed the estate had not been informed of the closure.

He added: “The estate had been aware for some time of Network Rail’s concerns over safety issues, and their desire to find a permanent solution, but at no time was a unilateral closure mentioned.”

The crossing is also used by horseriders.

The cars of hill walkers parked up on their way to Ben Alder and other routes in the area. (CROP)
The cars of hill walkers parked up on their way to Ben Alder and other routes in the area. (CROP)

Badenoch MSP Kate Forbes (SNP) said she would be contacting Network Rail to try and find a solution.

She told the Strathy: “I recognise the strength of feeling locally about this, and I am taking up the matter with Network Rail. It is the peak tourist season so any changes to car park access could have a significantly detrimental impact upon local businesses.”

A Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) spokesperson said they understood the concerns raised by Dalwhinnie residents and would be seeking to find a solution too.

“It has been a well-used access point for people enjoying walks in the local area,” the spokesperson said.

“However, as the relevant authority, Network Rail has a duty to ensure the safety of the public at all times. We do hope this can be achieved while maintaining public access at the location.

“Access rights do not apply to rail crossings, and so the CNPA do not have any formal role in this decision by Network Rail, but we will be seeking to meet with all parties involved to see if we can find a way forward.”

The level crossing was locked at Wednesday lunchtime.
The level crossing was locked at Wednesday lunchtime.

There had been community claims that “the silent” Azuma train had prompted the closure, but this has been denied by operator LNER.

A spokesperson said: “It would not be for us to make a recommendation or any kind of directive to close a rail crossing. The Azuma train horns are compliant with regulations otherwise we would not be able to run these trains.”

A Network Rail spokesperson said the private crossing was intended for the use of the landowner and not as an access point for the general public.

He said: “Increased usage of the crossing by the public creates additional risks to their safety from passing trains, and as a result we are locking the crossing to prevent unauthorised use.

“An alternative crossing point, via a road under the railway, is available a mile further along the line for those members of the public seeking to access the hills on the other side of the railway.”

To deter trespass there will be additional fencing put in place, along with the signage indicating the diversionary route.

There is a telephone at the crossing for users to call the rail network to ensure that the line is safe to cross.

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