ScotRail bosses have admitted “shooting themselves in the foot” over timetable changes and cancellation problems which have left north-east communities furious.
Changes put in place in December have resulted in stations such as Laurencekirk and Stonehaven being stripped of the Intercity trains which run between Aberdeen and the Central Belt.
Now, people travelling from those towns to Glasgow and Edinburgh have to make a detour to Montrose to catch connecting trains, which they say are often delayed.
At a heated meeting at Mearns Community Campus in Laurencekirk, ScotRail management was grilled about the “unacceptable” facilities at Montrose and faced claims the north-east was “getting left behind”.
Reece Watt, a blind student from Laurencekirk who attends college in Arbroath, said the changes in timetabling, and raft of cancellations, had left him forking out on taxis.
Aberdeenshire councillor George Carr, Conservative member for the Mearns, added: “A businessman who travels from Aberdeen to Edinburgh is not more important than this chap who needs to travel to college.
“The current situation is unacceptable.”
ScotRail chief executive Alex Hynes pulled out of Friday’s meeting due to a “diary clash”, leaving Scott Prentice, head of business development at Scotrail, to respond to the complaints.
Mr Prentice said: “We don’t always get it right first time and we have shot ourselves in the foot here.
“The service has not been good enough and I’m sorry about that.”
He added the decision to cut Intercity trains from village stations was to keep up with competition and improve overall journey times between cities.
One resident said: “It’s as though you’re saying a pound spent in Edinburgh or Dundee is more important than a pound spent in Laurencekirk.
“We want to get our trains back.”
The meeting, attended by around 60 residents, was facilitated by Angus North and Mearns SNP MSP Mairi Gougeon and West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine Conservative MP Andrew Bowie.
Ms Gougeon said: “There are people with appointments at Ninewells in Dundee or Foresterhill in Aberdeen who simply don’t take the trains due to fears about being late.
“I don’t think people should be punished for living in a rural area – but we are currently hit hardest by these timetable changes.”
After the meeting she said she was “not surprised” by the turnout as she has received an “unprecedented amount” of complaints.
Mr Bowie added: “The communication has been poor.
“The rural north-east is getting less attention than our urban centres.”
Mr Prentice promised to return in six months’ time with a plan.
Speaking afterwards, he said: “Everyone across Scotland’s railway is working flat out every day to improve the service we deliver, and achieving this consistent level of performance will provide us with the platform to make the changes to encourage more people in the Mearns area to travel by rail.”