David Whiteford: Train route could be ‘Orient Express of the North’

The Orient Express is one of the world's most famous rail journeys
The Orient Express is one of the world's most famous rail journeys
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Kinbrace, Helmsdale and Fearn may lack the glamour of Paris, Milan and Venice but the world famous Orient Express could soon have a new rail rival right here in Scotland.

Following a major feasibility study, tourism experts have identified an opportunity to turn Scotland’s most northerly railway line into a world-class destination attraction.

The existing 170-mile route from Inverness to Dingwall and Thurso features 25 stations but low passenger numbers have led to a lack of investment in years. We see an opportunity to change that.

My organisation, the North Highland Initiative, seeks to identify and deliver economic opportunities in the area. Three years ago we launched the North Coast 500 motoring route and it has shown what can be achieved. Last year Conde Nast Traveller called it “what may be the best road trip in the world” and in the months following the launch more than 29,000 additional people visited the area, pumping an extra £9 million into the local economy. That level of interest extends the traditional tourism season as well as creating jobs and attracting investment.

READ MORE: Seven best mountain walks along Scotland’s North Coast 500 route

Using that as a template, we looked for opportunities to recreate the success. The Far North railway has traditionally been a transport lifeline for locals but little has been done to explore its potential beyond that. As a result, comparatively few tourists use the service and infrastructure improvements have been limited.

However the potential is vast. That single stretch of line is home to Dunrobin Castle, Glenmorangie, Balblair and Clynelish Distilleries, the Castle of Mey and beautiful pristine beaches. There is also potential to link up with the cruise liners docking at Invergordon where 170,000 visitors are expected to disembark this year.

At the moment, most of them board tour buses to explore the area by road but a revitalised Far North Line offers the chance to cut road miles and allow visitors more flexibility to get on and off where they want.

While the feasibility study highlights the scale of the opportunity, there are obstacles to be overcome. Investment will be required to improve existing rolling stock, potentially using carriages available following the renewal of the Caledonian Sleeper service. The single track status of the line also requires more sidings and passing places to be created to allow increased frequency of service.

READ MORE: Electric boost to North Coast 500’s green credentials

These ‘leaves on the line’ can be cleared. Initial discussions with the rail franchise operator Abellio Scotrail have been extremely positive and Highlands and Islands Enterprise have also given their support. Our focus now will be on talking to more potential partners including Network Rail, Visit Scotland and the Scottish Government.

The UK Government has made a commitment to building what Transport Minister Chris Grayling called “an expanding, modern railway”. The demand is there. Since 1997 the number or rail journeys in the UK has doubled and continues to rise.

Investment in the Far North Line would make it easier for local people to live, work and go about their business in the area throughout the year.

In 1963 the Far North Line was identified for closure by Dr Beeching but then reprieved following intense local lobbying, affectionately known as the MacPuff campaign. Now we have the chance to prove the untapped potential of what just might be the best railway journey in Britain.

An increase in visitor numbers to this remote part of Scotland will help a wide range of businesses through local supply chain impacts and will, in turn generate employment at a local level. In my view this is key to dealing with rural depopulation and developing vibrant communities in the North Highlands of Scotland.

David Whiteford is char of the North Highland Initiative