Formed back in 2007 in anticipation of the line's need to diversify into new markets on Stena's relocation to Cairnryan which finally happened in November 2011, the Stranraer to Ayr Line Support Association was Scotland's first self-styled Community Rail Partnership.
In May 2014 now known as SAYLSA a play on local landmark Ailsa Craig, it became the first Scottish designated CRP in accordance with transport minister Keith Brown's vision that these should represent distinct geographical areas, bringing together communities with shared aspirations to engage with the rail industry and market new opportunities.
A registered charity, SAYLSA is a company limited by guarantee with a board of 12 members bringing together local authorities, community councils and the rail industry and works with an associate trading company and the newly created Stranraer - Ayr Railway Heritage Association. Seeking to promote community development, education and recreational benefits, it provides a mechanism for contact with local users and stakeholders facilitating initiatives to improve stations, market the line and overcome exclusion.
Its guides to the line's scenery and to walking and cycling from stations and its presence at exhibitions and galas have promoted awareness, while the Girvan Station shop reopened after 20 years and the gardening now to be seen at all stations improve the travel experience. The Barrhill Community Bus provides greater connectivity, and station-specific timetables grow the market for what's on offer.
Special events involving schools began with the line's 130th anniversary in 2007 and led through the 150th of the railway reaching Girvan to the most successful of all, the very emotional farewell to the last boat train in 2011.
Reviving ridership making Stranraer the best-performing rural route in Scotland shows the line's contribution to the local economy, but there is a need to find ways of engaging better given the risk of apathy, the differing alignments of the two local authorities and the relative priority of other issues affecting local development.
As a rural line, Ayr-Stranraer offers quick journeys, environmental benefits if the trains are well-used, attractive prices for certain journeys, tourism opportunities and access to health and education - but has got to be cost-effective. Against the stalled aspiration to get the ferry link back and the threatened loss of trains to Glasgow must be set the proposed December 2015 timetable's significant increase in train mileage on the Stranraer-Girvan-Ayr-Kilmarnock corridor.
The 2012 fares promotion showed the scope for stimulating business, but travel was predominantly from not to Stranraer. There seems no early prospect of seeing off the Class 156s, so these should be refurbished with posters promoting the line that would take its appeal wherever they travelled across the network and maybe counter-units at which hosts could hand out welcome-packs. SAYLSA would like to see a bi-modal South-West Rover ticket or Daytripper Plus valid also on complementary bus routes and promotion of the line's fine stations with restoration of Maybole's disused platform and creation of a heritage terminus at Stranraer.
There should be more visits by charter trains, travelling classrooms, guided walks and other rail-based tourism initiatives. SAYLSA is hoping for a door to Donald Trump at Turnberry, and options for new or reopened stations could include Dunragit as a railhead for the Machars or New Luce on the Southern Upland Way. CRPs provide great opportunities for swapping ideas and informing best practice.
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Report by John Yellowlees.
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