David Spaven: We need to save one of Scotland’s heritage routes

The Far North Line survived closure by the infamous Dr Beeching but 50 years on its future is once again uncertain. Picture: Contributed
The Far North Line survived closure by the infamous Dr Beeching but 50 years on its future is once again uncertain. Picture: Contributed
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The Far North Line is one of the great rail survivors, but action is needed to ensure it stays on the transport map, says David Spaven

Britain’s longest rural railway – the 168-mile Far North Line from Inverness to Wick and Thurso – is one of the country’s most remarkable rail survivors.

Completed under the auspices of the renowned Duke of Sutherland in 1874, the Far North Line was the key means of transport to the remote counties of Ross-shire, Sutherland, Caithness and Orkney until the second half of the 20th-century, and played a major strategic role in Britain’s First World War effort.

The biggest threat to its future came in 1963, when Dr Richard Beeching published his infamous report on The Reshaping of British Railways. But Highlanders were quick to respond to the threat. Wide-ranging public and political opposition, including the memorable “MacPuff” campaign, was instrumental in securing a ministerial refusal of closure in 1964. It was by far the biggest rail reprieve of the Beeching era.

Fifty years on, it is vital – while the Scottish Government remains enthusiastic about opportunities for rail freight generally – that new traffics are won to the Far North Line. There may be an opportunity for a “short line” operator – based on the North American model – to develop peripheral rail freight services feeding into the main rail haulier networks. With local market knowledge and contacts, and utilising less costly medium-powered locos of 1960s vintage, an agile operator could open up prospects that bigger rail hauliers – with centralised management and greater overheads – might struggle to secure.

Currently, the Far North Line carries a variety of regular freight traffics: oil to the Lairg railhead, serving a wide catchment in the north west; pipes to Georgemas in Caithness for the offshore oil industry; and nuclear waste from Georgemas to Sellafield.

A crucial prospect for the future, and a stepping stone for further freight development, lies in securing 100,000 tonnes of timber annually from the Flow Country around Kinbrace to Inverness and beyond. As and when a regular timber train starts operation, this would provide the scope for adaptation of the timetable to allow for extension to Georgemas (the railhead for Caithness), which already has enough facilities to accommodate extra traffic. If a daily timber train is successful, then a second train may even be feasible, particularly if the cost can be shared with other traffics. A regular service to and from Caithness would be attractive for a wide range of commodities, including supermarket supplies, oil, compressed natural gas and cement.

While not a major volume opportunity, mention should be made of the niche opportunities for parcels traffic on passenger trains. There are ample precedents on the Caledonian Sleeper, East Midland Trains and Great Western Railway, and the scope to develop this market between the staffed terminus stations at Inverness, Wick and Thurso (and possibly some unstaffed stations, using local “agents”) should be explored by ScotRail and potential partners.

Recent news that passenger sleeper services from Edinburgh to Caithness are being discussed highlights the potential for regular intermodal traffic, such as supermarket supplies, being conveyed in “mixed trains”. Once again, it may be that bespoke solutions are needed for the very particular circumstances of the Far North Line, and of the peripheral Highland routes in general. If rail freight nationally succeeds in pushing its penetration of the retail market beyond “ambient” goods to chilled and frozen, this – and logistical co-operation between the different supermarket chains serving Caithness – will create the critical mass for regular freight services.

The current prospects for the Far North Line can be summarised in a couple of sentences: “This is a long and unusual rural railway, which is costing the taxpayer a lot of money for a narrowly focused, and currently unreliable, [passenger] service. It needs much better train performance and significantly more passenger and freight traffic to strengthen and secure its role in the regional transport infrastructure network.”

If the line is to be equipped to withstand perhaps inevitable future threats to its existence, cost control – although crucial – is not enough. New ways of working, empowered local management, targeted investment and development of new markets should also be at the heart of a growth package for the railway.

For 142 years, the Far North Line has been a great survivor. But its fascinating history, unique qualities and considerable potential have been routinely under-appreciated. I hope that, in the decades ahead, it will take its rightful place as a leader in rural railway innovation, and that, once again, it will become central to the economic and social life of the 168-mile corridor it has served since 1874.

David Spaven is Scottish Representative of the Rail Freight Group. His Highland Survivor: the story of the Far North Line is published this month by Kessock Books, www.rfg.org.uk