I remember the old steam trains. And the clouds of smoke and dirty black soot falling from the sky as they passed through Dumbarton East, Dumbarton Central and Dalreoch stations, writes Bill Heaney

They were making their way to Cardross, Craigendoran, Helensburgh Central and Helensburgh Upper, Renton and Balloch.

The steam trains stopped at Rhu and Arrochar too in order to deposit members of the gentry who had travelled up from London for the grouse shooting and deer culling seasons around Loch Lomondside and the foothills and mountains around the West Highland Line.

The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II of happy memory has had me recalling her Coronation Day when, as a child, I was invited to a street party in Dennystown by my cousins, who lived in William Street, where the drying greens, wash houses and outside privvies were separated from the railway line by just a wooden paling fence.

The red brick-built houses built for workers in Denny’s Leven shipyard were lit by gas, which also illuminated the entrances and winding staircases which led down the back to sewers which frequently overflowed on to the cobbled footpaths.

This led one councillor of the day to ask: “Does a bling man have to pay for the lobby gas?”

These house had long been condemned and the residents waited patiently in considerable squalor and discomfort for the council to build new homes for them in Castlehill, Westcliff, Brucehill and Bellsmyre.

Everyone was dressed up for the coronation party, not in fancy dress but in their “good” clothes, and we were seated by the dozen for an al fresco feast at tables laden with sandwiches, biscuits and home-baked cakes and scones – not to mention dumpling.

This was all washed down with copious amounts of McDougall’s and Garvie’s “lemonade” or “ginger” as we knew it,  which had been shipped into Dumbarton from Bonhill’s Ladyton Spring and the Millig burn Helensburgh.

We thought we had died and woke up in heaven.

When the party was over, the children were each given a present with which to remember that historic day.

My gift was what they called a snake belt, a red, white and blue item to hold up my short trousers, held together with a shiny silver buckle shaped like a snake. It looked very snazzy.

These belts were coveted at the time by boys who preferred not to have to wear braces.

The old trains on which we travelled in those halcyon times, usually just to Craigendoran to catch a “Doon the Watter” steamer or  to work in Glasgow, came to mind today in a daydream which ended in a puff of white smoke.

I was reading a statement from the Conservative Party, which underscored how in the 21st century so much has changed.

And how some politicians, particularly in the Conservative Party it seems, must be living in a parallel universe.

What woke me up was their plea for Scotrail passengers  to be allowed to drink alcohol on trains.

Hadn’t they read anywhere that local railway staff have threatened to boycott working on trains due to fears for their safety.

This came after rail services between Glasgow and Balloch were plagued by incidents of unruly behaviour.

RMT regional organiser Mick Hogg issued the warning.RMT regional organiser Mick Hogg, left, issued a warning on behalf of ScotRail staff, saying it could only be a matter of time before one of them is seriously injured or killed as a result of thugs travelling on the route.

A ticket examiner said that she had been left traumatised after attempting to remove brawling thugs who boarded a service in Alexandria.

The staff member saw a gang of teenagers attack a younger boy with a bottle, and feared for her own safety as she tried to break up the fight when the train reached Renton.

Mr Hogg said that her experience was not an unusual one on local routes. He said: “One of our members was subjected to a terrifying incident when members of a notorious young team boarded the train at Alexandria.

“She managed to remove them from the train at Renton and then block the doors as the driver closed them, but it left her traumatised and fearing for her safety at work.

“That just gives you a flavour of what’s taking place on a regular basis. And no one is listening. If nobody listens then we’ll instruct our members not to work on the impacted routes.

“I’m sad to say that someone will be seriously injured or, god forbid, end up losing their life. And I don’t want to have to turn round and say ‘told you so’.” 

Figures published earlier this year showed that the number of crimes reported at West Dunbartonshire train stations have rocketed by almost 50 percent.

Across the area, 92 offences were reported to British Transport Police in the year up to November 2021, with criminal damage and fire-raising, violent or sexual offences and thefts all common.

While the number of passengers dropped dramatically during the Covid pandemic, the number of crimes increased from 62 in November 2019 to 92.

A British Transport Police spokesperson told me: “Through partnership working with ScotRail and Police Scotland, we’re working tirelessly to deter criminality and anti-social behaviour on the railway network, and we have been increasing patrols on the Balloch line using targeted operations to deter offending.

“Where offences involving youths take place, we regularly engage with schools and campus officers to identify those responsible and deal with them accordingly. We will take action as the railway needs to be a safe place for everyone using it.”

ScotRail security and crime manager Stephen Elliot said: “The safety of our customers and employees is our number one priority. Anti-social behaviour, whether that’s physical violence, verbal abuse, or any other form, is completely unacceptable.

“Everyone has the right to travel in peace, so we’ll continue to work with the authorities to ensure that anyone responsible for anti-social behaviour is brought to justice.”

A flavour of how the local travelling public feel about incidents like this is caught in the comment columns of the Glasgow Live website: “Catch them and get them to do the time on cleaning the trains at night for the next two years.”

And again: “Our SNP government in Scotland thinks it’s ok not jail anyone under 18. What did they think was going to happen?  Instead of having 20 police standing in Balloch and other local station, why could stick a couple on the trains? Problem solved.  Scotland’s public transport is too terrifying for even the transport operator’s staff to be on.”
And my own experience? I was travelling back on the last train from Glasgow one night when a young fellow who had obviously been out on the beer threw himself down into a seat opposite me. He then proceeded to put his feet up on the seat next to me.
When I asked him – politely – to put them back on the floor, he threatened me.
The railway union says it could only be a matter of time before a member of ScotRail staff – or a member of the travelling public – is seriously injured or killed as a result of thugs travelling on local trains.
I can’t help thinking that  it could have been me.

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