IT sounded a great idea. Instead of the four-plus hours drive for a mountain day in Torridon, I would go by train. The timetables soon provided a sharp reality check.
An epic journey more comparable to traveling times on the Trans Siberian Express; some 24 hours, involving four changes, a lot of hanging around and a couple of linking bus journeys.
It's only a 16-minute ride to Dundee, but a 38-minute wait for the next train to Perth. Twenty minutes later, and with just a short nine-minute wait, I would be on the train to Inverness for two hours and 15 minutes. Then a ten-minute walk from the station for the two-hour bus trip to Kyle of Lochalsh.
Now there was just the small matter of a ten-and-a-half-hour wait for the next train from Kyle to Strathcarron, where there would be another six hours hanging around for a bus to Torridon. Suddenly the drive didn't feel like the worst option.
That may seem an extreme example for a trip within Scotland, but believe me, it's not. Even trying to get to a reasonably local destination can be near impossible. The lack of joined-up public transport networks is the biggest single obstacle to getting away from our reliance on cars. I would love to be able to use trains and buses more often to access the hills – the options simply aren't there.
The situation has been exacerbated during these coronavirus days. Public transport use has fallen dramatically, and car sharing has become a no-no. Now instead of four friends travelling together in one car for a hill outing, you have four separate vehicles, and this scenario is being replicated all over the country.
Add in the fact that overseas travel has been largely abandoned in favour of staying at home and the result is the chaos we have been witnessing all summer; overcrowding, selfish and dangerous parking, and, with the closure of many facilities, rubbish and human waste left lying around. The upside is that it's encouraging to see more folk taking an interest in exploring our great outdoors, but it has become apparent that the infrastructure cannot cope at current levels. This could – and should – be a tipping point. We simply can't go on like this.
Even before Covid-19 came along, the push was to encourage a reduction in car use. When, and if, life returns to some sort of normality, the efforts to introduce smarter ways to travel must be intensified. It's interesting to see that Mountaineering Scotland has been surveying members over possible solutions to problems in Glen Etive and Glen Coe. One of the suggestions was for shuttle buses to be introduced for mountain access.
A few years back, a shuttle was brought in at Arkaig while that horrible rollercoaster B-road along to the head of the loch was under repair. It was an innovation that I believed had the potential to be expanded as not many look forward to this drive and there are a lack of bothies or hostels in the area.
A shuttle bus service for Glen Nevis had also been planned for this year, and there are many other big glens where this could be the way ahead. When I spoke recently to MScot Director of Access and Conservation Ron Neville, he was enthusiastic about more joined-up travel options, including the use of shuttle buses.
For instance, every year there are negotiations to ensure continued motor access in the gated glen of Strathfarrar. There are no restrictions for bikes or walkers and responsible camping is welcomed, yet the focus is often solely on private vehicles.
Ron said: “My personal view is that we don't need petrol and diesel vehicles going into remote glens. We have bicycles, we don't need to be burning hydro carbons. We are heading towards less car use, and to encourage this, we should have far better travel links around the likes of Loch Lomond and the Cairngorms to improve access.”
There's also scope for walking clubs to become more integrated, working together on walk programmes that could see them sharing coach hire for members. It would cut costs for individuals as well as cutting the numbers driving for meets.
Hostels have been badly hit by the Covid restrictions, and some are struggling for survival, but once the dust has settled there could be fresh opportunities. A hostel at Arkaig which also runs a minibus could be one such enterprise. It's been proved before that one interest coming into an area can help generate and support a whole new network.
The early mountaineers didn't have the use of cars and it may be that the clock has to be turned back in order for us to move forward. A slower approach could be a better approach.
The necessity of remote working during lockdown has shown there is a different way forward. Now we are looking at more flexible hours, less office time and a vast reduction in peak time travelling.
It may be a while yet before confidence returns to public transport. But when it does, that 24-hour train and bus journey is likely to be a more attractive prospect, a couple of days' working with the benefit of a healthy reset in between.