Work aimed at improving a notorious hairpin bend at the bottom of two steep braes on the A9 in Caithness has begun.
Ground investigations are now underway at the Berriedale Braes, on the northernmost section of the road.
The trunk road drops from 150m (492ft) to 20m (65ft) as it enters a valley at the village, vehicles then have to negotiate the hairpin bend before rising steeply again.
Local MSP Rob Gibson welcomed the beginning of the ground investigations (GI), saying it has taken 40 years of talking to get to this stage.
Transport Minister Keith Brown was on site to see the drilling rig start its work today (Wed).
Mr Brown said: “The Scottish Government has signalled its commitment to addressing the road alignment at Berriedale Braes, easing the problem for HGVs and other long vehicles in particular.
“To help identify the right solution, we are carrying out detailed design work and these ground investigations are a vital part of that. As the design work progresses we will continue to work with our partners and expect to have a preferred option ready next Summer.
“This is just one element of our ongoing work to improve the A9 with the ambitious programme to dual the route between Perth and Inverness, the first government ever to commit to do so. Work is gathering pace with surveys underway and the procurement of the three design contracts about to get underway.”
The £90,000 contract for these works, which are expected to last three weeks, was recently awarded to BAM Ritchies. Transport Scotland is providing additional funding to cover the total cost of the GI works to progress this important element of the design process.
The GI work for the A9 Berriedale Braes improvement scheme will include exploratory drilling into soil and rock and taking samples which will then be assessed in the lab to determine the physical characteristics of the soil. This will help inform the work to identify a possible solution to this stretch of the northernmost part of the A9.
The ongoing design commission is aiming to provide a preferred option next summer.
Both Transport Scotland and The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority are investing £100,000 in the design work, with Highland Council and HITRANS both providing £10,000 for the project.
Mr Gibson said: “ I am glad to see the Transport Minister come to Caithness to mark the start of the investigation into finding the best way to improve the Berriedale Braes.
“It shows the seriousness and progress that he and the SNP Government has taken to get the steep bend on the north slope of the Braes made safer and more manageable.
“Bear in mind there’s been forty years or so of talk on this matter but it is only in the last three years that we are seeing some concrete actions to help solve it.
“I too would like to have seen the Berriedale Braes problem solved yesterday however there is welcome progress.
He added: “I am in constant dialogue with the Minister and always press him on why this is important, but to be fair, as a man with Brora connections he was already aware of the problems regarding the hazards on the A9 at Berriedale.”
Meanwhile survey work is also under on the A9 at Drumochter which will cover 30,000 football pitches.
The transport minister joined a topographical survey team at Drumochter to see the work they are doing which will inform the design of the new dualled route.
Mr Brown highlighted the sheer scale of the work and saw at first-hand the difficult terrain being surveyed as the A9 Dualling Programme gathers pace.
He said: “The A9 Dualling Programme is the most expensive transport project in Scotland’s history and presents some of the most challenging work ever witnessed.
“The A9 passes through areas which are breathtaking and hugely important in terms of wildlife and landscape - not to mention people’s homes.
“The surveys currently taking place along the route, including here at Drumochter will help support the ongoing preliminary design work on the A9 and help inform the early engineering services work that has now started on the A96 dualling programme.
“The extent of the surveys, covering an area of over 22,000 hectares, the equivalent of 30,000 football pitches, is testament to the challenges that lie ahead as we take forward our plans to dual this vital route.
“In addition, the scale of the work covered by the dualling programme includes The Cairngorms National Park, three national scenic areas, 14 scheduled monuments, one conservation area, 51 listed buildings, 12 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, two National Nature Reserves and 222 watercourses.
“We are also dealing with rock cuttings; building new bridges and widening existing major bridges; public utilities; dealing with the close proximity of the Highland Mainline Railway; and there are currently over 100 junctions that must be incorporated to provide access to adjacent property and communities.
“Some very complex and demanding challenges undoubtedly lie ahead, but given our track record on other major projects we are confident of delivery on time and on budget.
“Along with the survey work we will shortly be issuing invitations to tender to the eight well-respected design consultancies or joint ventures that have made the shortlist for the three A9 Dualling design contracts.
“It shouldn’t be forgotten that this is the first time any government has committed to dualling the A9 between Perth and Inverness, the biggest transport project, by cost, in Scotland’s history, and one that will exceed the cost of the M74, Queensferry Crossing, and AWPR combined.
“The benefits of a fully dualled A9 are clear - communities and businesses who live along or use this important route can look forward to faster journey times, better journey time reliability and road safety improvements.”