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Ramblers Scotland step up pressure on reopening of Ben Alder level-crossing in Dalwhinnie

By Gavin Musgrove

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Campaigners last year at the crossing to Ben Alder estate which has been used for decades without incident.
Campaigners last year at the crossing to Ben Alder estate which has been used for decades without incident.

Ramblers Scotland has called on the Scottish Transport Minister and officials to meet with them in a bid to reopen access controversially lost at the Ben Alder level crossing in Dalwhinnie.

They have suggested a way forward with Jenny Gilruth in their correspondence to resolve the wrangle which started last summer when Network Rail controversially locked the gates without any community consultation.

Ramblers Scotland leaders have claimed this is the latest part of an organised programme of level crossing closures by the railway body across the country.

They have said it has major implications for access rights and rural communities across Scotland, as well as directly increasing the danger to the general public in the vicinity of the Ben Alder crossing.

It comes after Ms Gilruth recently repeated Network Rail’s view that there never was an authorised public route over Ben Alder level crossing, and therefore there is no obligation to provide a public means of safely crossing the railway.

Brendan Paddy, director of Ramblers Scotland, states: "It is clear from your letter that it is now considered that Transport Scotland and the Scottish Government have no further influence in relation to this matter.

"We would, however, disagree.

"Firstly, despite Network Rail’s opinion on the matter, this closure does affect a public route as explained above.

"Secondly, the undesirable and frankly dangerous situation created by the unilateral locking of the gate at Dalwhinnie is part of an organised programme of level crossing closures by Network Rail.

"Scottish Government will have to take a view on this because it will disproportionately affect many already fragile rural communities.

"This once again highlights the need for the Scottish Government to work with the UK authorities to implement the recommendations of the Joint Law Commissions’ 2013 report on level crossings.

"These recommendations had the clear intent of facilitating public access across the railways and recognised that attempts to restrict public access in rural areas in the name of safety were likely to be counter-productive.

"We strongly urge the Minister to meet with our representatives to fully understand the impact of this level crossing closure, to ask Network Rail to revisit its decision and the range of options it is prepared to consider, and to discuss what further steps can be taken to ensure such a situation does not arise again."

Ramblers Scotland director Brendan Paddy.
Ramblers Scotland director Brendan Paddy.

Mr Paddy said the correspondence was sent on behalf of a group comprising the Dalwhinnie community council, Ben Alder Estate, other local groups and businesses, and national outdoor recreation bodies.

They have been calling for Network Rail to find a way of safely reopening the level crossing.

They believe that Network Rail’s decision was 'unjustified' and it does not reflect the recommendations of its own risk assessment for the crossing.

The group also points out that Ben Alder level crossing is 'in fact part of a recorded public right of way and there is extensive historical evidence of the use of this route on maps, in guidebooks and in personal accounts dating back to the 19th Century'.

The route running up to the level crossing on each side has also been designated as a core path by both the Cairngorms National Park and the Highland Council.

They have said the extensive and long-standing public use of the right of way was recognised and indeed facilitated by Network Rail until July, last year, was the level crossing was locked.

Mr Paddy points out: "The crossing remains in frequent use but in a less safe manner than before with people, some with dogs or bicycles, regularly climbing the locked gates and adjacent fencing to cross the tracks.

"This is an issue that cannot be resolved by the creation of physical barriers but only through community engagement and acceptance."

Ms Gilruth told the Strathy: “I understand how strongly Ramblers Scotland and local people feel about this issue and will consider carefully all that they say in their letter before responding in due course, including to confirm the requested meeting.

“Decisions like this are not reached lightly. Ben Alder Level Crossing is owned and maintained by Network Rail which holds a statutory duty to operate the rail network, including this level crossing, in a manner that ensures the risk to users, neighbours and the general public is as low as is reasonably practicable.

“Safety is clearly the paramount consideration here, but we also have a longstanding commitment in Scotland to access to the countryside that also needs to be factored in.

"I understand that a study undertaken by Network Rail has identified a number of feasible options that could potentially be implemented to provide public access across the railway to allow access to the Ben Alder footpath.

"I am keen that Network Rail and Transport Scotland explore fully those options with Ramblers Scotland and other local groups and individuals with a view to reaching a safe and feasible solution for all.”

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