A MULTI-million pound action plan has been drawn up to find a long-term solution for the Inverness-Kyle of Lochalsh road and rail route in the Highlands which is threatened by an unstable hillside.
The plan has brought together Highland Council and Railtrack who will outline their proposals to MSPs and community groups before making a plea to the Scottish executive for special funding.
The ongoing danger at Strome Ferry in Wester Ross was highlighted on 29 October when the latest in a spate of landslides blocked the road and also put the rail line out of action.
The rail link between Kyle and Strathcarron remains closed and the road was blocked for two weeks as rubble was cleared and a drainage system was installed.
The blockage temporarily stranded 87 children living in Applecross and Lochcarron and attending Plockton High School with the only alternative road journey involving a 300-mile round trip.
The council has since investigated hiring a small boat to ferry the children across Loch Carron if the road is blocked again. A ferry last crossed the loch in 1970 when the Stomeferry by-pass opened. Parents have voiced concern at the long-term use of the road and say the daily bus run is running the gauntlet with the risk of further rock falls.
Railtrack estimates that 2 million requires to be spent in the short term to realign the existing railway line between Strathcarron and Strome Ferry before the line can re-open. It is hoped this can be completed by next spring.
In the longer term, the council believes the most realistic solution to the problem is either a new inland route via Glen Udalain, at an estimated cost of 16 million, or a North Shore route with a medium level bridge across the loch at Strome Narrows at an estimated cost of 21.3 million.
The council says both solutions would allow the existing road to be used as a rock trap, which could be cleared of any debris and would give greater protection to the railway than at present.
David Green, the council convener, said yesterday: "The road and rail solutions are inextricably linked and therefore we are pleased to work with Railtrack to draw up an action plan."
Ewen Mackinnon, the local councillor who was part of a council delegation which met with Railtrack representatives in Edinburgh, said:" The communities affected here are understandably anxious that progress be made to identify the best option for replacing the existing road - deemed to be one of the most difficult in the United Kingdom - and securing the necessary funding.
"I would like to assure them that the council and Railtrack recognise the problems and are anxious to make progress as soon as possible."
At present the council is spending 200,000 a year on stabilising the hillside on the Strome Ferry by-pass.
Janette Anderson, director of Railtrack Scotland, said: "Railtrack welcomes this transport initiative from The Highland Council and the opportunity to work with other industry partners to raise this important issue on behalf of rail users.
"The October landslips have re-emphasised the fact that a permanent solution is required in order to maintain the safe operation of the Kyle line, which is important to surrounding local communities and their economy.
"Railtrack is planning major engineering improvements to the line between Strathcarron and Kyle. The project will see an altered route and new section of track at Strome Ferry, involving a new rail-bearing causeway into Loch Carron, taking the line away from the problem area."