scotland (4K)
The Friends of the Far North Line
Cairdean Na Loine Tuath
the campaign group for rail north of Inverness - lobbying for improved services for the local user, tourist and freight operator
The following report into the possibility of introducing a steam train service between Tain and Dunrobin was commissioned by Mike Herd, Tain. The Friends have several reservations about this proposal which are published in the May 2006 newsletter and we are including this report on our website to further discussion relating to these proposals.

Ross and Cromarty Enterprise

Introduction of Steam Train Service Between Tain and Dunrobin

Operational Report
April 2005

Douglas Binns Limited


  1. Introduction
  2. Proposed Service
  3. Infrastructure Requirements
  4. Operational Requirements
  5. Approvals and Consents
  6. Health and Safety
  7. Key Opportunities and Risks
  8. Conclusion
  9. Recommendations

1.    Introduction

Ross and Cromarty Enterprise (RACE) commissioned Douglas Binns Limited in March 2005, to produce a report into the operational aspects involved in the introduction of a steam train service between Tain and Dunrobin. Scott Wilson Railways were employed as a sub-consultant to provide specific operational expertise.

On 30 March 2005, Douglas Binns met with RACE and Mike Herd, the representative of the community group promoting the project. Douglas Binns then visually inspected Tain station and siding area with Mike Herd, before inspecting other stations and sidings on the route north to Brora.

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2.    Proposed Service

The proposed steam train service is to link Tain and Dunrobin, with a single return journey, four days a week during the summer period. The service would be provided as a tourist attraction, with a particular target of cruise ships utilising Invergordon Harbour.

The service would ideally leave passengers at Dunrobin Castle Station, so that they would have time to visit the adjacent castle before returning to Tain.

The initial proposal is to run "non-stop", although it would be potentially possible to stop at intermediate stations. An agreement would be required with Scotrail, as the station operators, to use each station and this would incur an access charge.

The proposed train could operate either as an "excursion" train or as a timetabled service. The decision as to which option is followed will depend largely on the view of Scotrail as to whether they consider the service to be in competition with them or complementing them.

A timetabled service would require tickets to be readily available to the general public. The Jacobite service between Fort William and Mallaig operates as a timetabled service with tickets available through Scotrail. An excursion service would normally be a "one off" and may allow particular dispensations such as running over weight-restricted bridges. Higher ticket prices may be able to be charged for an excursion.

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3.    Infrastructure Requirements

The following infrastructure will have to be in place to allow the operation of the proposed service:

3.1   Stabling

Stabling facilities may be available at a number of locations on the route including Tain, Ardgay, Lairg and Brora. Other locations such as Millburn Yard in Inverness, Muir of Ord and Dingwall may also be available. It is not currently known whether these sidings would be available for this proposal, and Network Rail should be contacted to confirm this. Network Rail will also be able to confirm land ownership, current usage, leasing arrangements and siding lengths. Network Rail have stated that they would have to confirm whether there are other potential siding users, and if so this may preclude the regular use of the sidings by the steam service.

Stabling the train at any point north of Tain would introduce additional train movements, with a consequent increase in potential disruption to other trains.

Security for the train is important to consider, and although vandalism rates may not be high in the villages considered, the consequences of any such vandalism could have safety implications as well as being expensive. Use of the existing yard at Millburn in Inverness may reduce the possibility of vandalism with existing security measures in place, but it would be likely that the steam train would be a greater target than the existing trains utilising the yard.

Daily maintenance of the train would be required at its stabling point. This would require facilities such as cleaning, an inspection pit, with a suitable electrical supply and drainage facilities.

Periodic heavier maintenance of the train would be required, and it would be likely that this would take place in a properly equipped facility such as Inverness maintenance depot. Scotrail operates this depot, and an agreement to use their facility would have to be obtained. Additional costs would be incurred for this facility.

The available length of sidings would dictate the maximum length of train. The train is likely to consist of a locomotive, brake/generator coach and a number of first and standard class coaches. The locomotive and brake/generator coach would have a length of circa 40 metres depending on the specific vehicles. Additional coaches are approximately 20 metres in length. A standard class coach would seat typically 64 passengers with a first class coach seating 48.

3.2   Water and Fuelling

A suitable water supply would be required. It is likely that water supplies exist at the stations, and information regarding the supplies can be obtained from Network Rail / Scottish Water. If the supply capacity was low then a storage tank of approximately 20,000 litres would have to be installed. This would be a prudent provision in any event to mitigate against temporary supply interruptions. It is likely to be necessary to have more than one watering point, with the second facility being at Brora to avoid watering the train whilst it is on the main line. It may be possible to utilise a mobile water tank wagon as part of the train, or via road tanker.

The quantity of coal to be stored at any one time should be determined, and a bunker constructed. The method of loading the coal into the locomotive would most likely be via an excavator. Ash from the train would have to be offloaded each day and disposed of in a suitable manner, again within a suitable area of the yard.

3.3   Siding Locations

At Tain, there are two existing number heavily overgrown sidings connected to the Down loop via a trailing connection. These sidings are approximately 150 metres long and the yard would be wide enough to accommodate inspection of the train, watering and fuel storage requirements. The sidings would require to be upgraded. This would be a convenient geographic location for the train to be stabled.

At Ardgay, there are two existing number sidings connected to the Down loop via a trailing connection. These sidings are approximately 45 to 90 metres long and the yard would be wide enough to accommodate inspection of the train, watering and fuel storage requirements. There would be land available to potentially extend both platforms by approximately 50 to 60 metres. The sidings appear to be in current use.

At Lairg, there is an existing oil siding facility as well as two additional number overgrown sidings connected to the up loop via a trailing connection. These sidings are approximately 150 metres long and the yard would be wide enough to accommodate inspection of the train, watering and fuel storage requirements. It would be important to check the details of the current oil usage to ensure that there would be no clash between the operations. The sidings would require to be upgraded.

At Brora, it was not possible to inspect the siding(s) other than from the station, and consequently it is not possible to comment on existing or available length and width of available area. It would appear that there is one siding with a headshunt, with little if any available width for an additional siding. The siding is connected via a facing connection to the Down loop and would require to be upgraded. This siding would therefore be unlikely to be usable for overnight stabling, although fuelling and watering may be possible. It should be possible to use this siding (length depending) for holding the train whilst it waits to return south to Tain, although there may be a signalling interface issue with the nearby level crossing when propelling and rounding the train.

Inverness Millburn Yard, Muir of Ord and Dingwall were not inspected. These locations may be able to stable the train, although information regarding availability and length would be required from Network Rail.

Douglas Binns Limited has contacted Network Rail who stated that, at present they are not able to provide information on siding length or existing water supplies. This would require the client to enter into a commercial agreement with them.

3.4   Route Gauging

Individual rolling stock types, both locomotives and coaches, have a particular gauge clearance "envelope". The route which the train is to run from its originating point to Tain and onwards to Brora will require to be confirmed as suitable for the specific rolling stock to be used.

Network Rail hold records of standard current rolling stock which is able to use each of their routes, however this is unlikely to extend to individual steam locomotives on the North Highland Line. An exercise would have to take place to confirm that proposed rolling stock would be acceptable. This would initially be via a desk study, but may require further physical checks of particular line side structures.

In the event that substandard clearances are found, then it may be that particular vehicles would not be allowed on the route.

3.5   Structural Assessment

Most structures have a standard assessed capacity giving a particular "route availability", for rolling stock over that structure. There may, however, be certain structures that have been previously assessed as being only suitable for carrying rolling stock of particular types with particular axle loading and axle centres. It may be that the steam locomotive does not come within the previously assessed limits. This would lead to a requirement to re-assess the structure, which may lead to an assessment, which does not allow the locomotive to cross the bridge.

3.6   Stations

Tain and Brora stations are suitable for a five-coach train plus locomotive and power car. The station platforms and footbridges appear visually in fair condition, however the buildings are boarded up and of a run-down appearance. Mobility impaired access is not available to both platforms of either station. Tain station’s approaches and car park are also of a run-down appearance. Upgrading works should be considered for both stations and in particular Tain to enable an attractive start and finish to the journey.

Dunrobin Castle station is a short platform station with a total length of approximately 60 metres, of which approximately 25 metres is of a sub standard width. The station appears in fair condition and has a small attractive station building. The length of the platform will mean that the train will have to operate selective door opening, which will require approval from Network Rail and Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate. The operation will require to be justified by risk assessment.

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4.    Operational Requirements

The main operational issues are considered to be:

4.1   Use of Licensed Train Operating Company

Any proposed service would have to be operated by a licensed Train Operating Company. Douglas Binns Limited has contacted the three independent licensed Train Operating Companies; Fragonset Merlin Rail, English Welsh and Scottish Railway, and West Coast Railway Company Limited to obtain their input on the practicality of the proposal.

It would be technically possible to set up a train operating company specifically to run this service, however this would be an extremely onerous task, requiring the approval of Network Rail, Rail Safety Limited, Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate and the Office of the Rail Regulator.

West Coast Railway Company Limited have confirmed in a telephone conversation that they may be interested in running the service, but cautioned that a suitable business case would require to be in place for the proposal.

Fragonset Merlin have confirmed that they would also be potentially interested in the proposal, and suggested that the train could be "top and tailed", with a steam locomotive at one end and a heritage diesel at the other. This would provide a breakdown recovery option as well as allowing increased speeds as it avoids the tender first speed restriction.

EWS have not responded to requests for information by letter, email or telephone to date.

4.2   Track Access

A "track access agreement" is required to be put in place between the Tain Operating Company and Network Rail. This involves a commercial deal setting out the contractual arrangements. The agreement includes the charges for train operations and the performance regime, and allows for penalty charges to be made if the proposed service causes delays to other train operators.

4.3   Locomotive and Coach Availability

There are a number of rolling stock suppliers with vacuum and dual braked stock, which would be suitable. The need for a vacuum braked stock would depend on which steam locomotive was employed, as a number of the mainline steam locomotives have now been air equipped.

The locomotive is more likely to be an issue. Locomotive owners may be happy to run a one-off special away from home, but for this proposal, the number of owners who can resource support crews/staff would reduce dramatically. The majority, if not all of the mainline steam locomotives are based out with Scotland, so operating 'away from home' for a prolonged period, is potentially problematic.

There are potentially mainline owners who may be interested  - Ian Riley (Black 5 45407 and 4MT Mogul), Bert Hitchen Black 5 45321 and West Coast with their 8F. These owners are able to provide their own staff to support sustained running.

The Thompson society B1 and NELPG K1 currently operate on the Jacobite service at Fort William. This West Coast Railways service uses two locomotives, with one required each day. This provides reasonable cover for failures, and a replacement can be available for the following day.

One problem with other locomotives in the mainline steam fleet is that they are predominantly large express passenger locomotives with high axle loads. These are the locomotives that can earn enough by pulling ten coach trains to get sufficient work to cover their operating costs.

4.4   Backup Locomotive

A back up locomotive will be required for the service, both for rescuing a failed train and for providing an alternative to allow for maintenance.

The back up locomotive would have to have a braking system compatible with that of the failed train. In most cases the coaches will be dual braked to allow the use of nearly any type of locomotive, although there will be an issue if the failed steam locomotive has only been fitted with a through air pipe. This would require to be risk assessed.

If the coaches and locomotive are not provided with dual braking and/or the locomotive does not have a through air pipe then a vacuum braked rescue locomotive would be required. These are becoming increasingly rare, with a small number of dual braked locomotives still in operation with EWS and Fragonset Merlin.

This restriction could be eliminated through "topping and tailing" the train with a steam locomotive at one end and a heritage diesel at the other.

4.5   Tender First Running

Under the Network Rail Company Standard, it is only possible to run a maximum of 25 miles tender first, unless a risk assessment can justify further. Currently the Jacobite service from Fort William to Mallaig runs tender first on one leg of its journey from Fort William to Mallaig, a distance of greater than 25 miles. In addition, tender first running is restricted to 45 miles per hour.

4.6   Potential Train Paths

There are potential train paths available under the current timetable, although it should be noted that this timetable is due to be changed imminently, so these times only give an indication of what may be available. Depending on the availability of stabling and maintenance facilities, the following paths may be suitable:

A suitable path from Inverness would need to be confirmed if the train were to be stabled between Inverness and Tain. A suitable onward path from Tain to Inverness would be possible. The exact journey times will depend on the proposed train to be used. The existing Scotrail service travels between Tain and Dunrobin in 55 minutes, whereas the above path allows 80 minutes.

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5.    Approvals and Consents

A number of approvals require to be sought during the project:

  Item Approval by Timescale
1 Approval of Railway Plant and Equipment Regulations for railway construction and operation. HMRI Acceptance in principle prior to work commencing. Approval on completion (timescale not given).
2 Network Rail Agreement with promoter NR Prior to work commencing, for any part of work impacting on Network Rail.
3 Planning permission and Building Warrants Highland Council Prior to work commencing.
4 Construction Health and Safety Plans, Method Statements Client’s representative Prior to work commencing.
5 Track access agreement Network Rail Prior to service commencing.
6 Operator’s License Rail Safety / HMRI / Office of the Rail Regulator Prior to service being operated by new railway company.
7 Station access agreement Scotrail Prior to service commencing
8 Siding Use Agreement Network Rail Prior to service commencing
9 Maintenance facility usage in Inverness Scotrail Prior to service commencing

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6.    Health and Safety

The proposed construction works would come under the auspices of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations (CDM), under which the client has to appoint a Planning Supervisor as well as competent designers and contractors.

Any works in the vicinity of the Network Rail infrastructure would require to be agreed with Network Rail.

Only licensed Train Operating Companies may operate trains on the rail network, and it is a complex and onerous task to obtain this license.

A number of risk assessments will be required to be produced for the particular planned service including tender first running, rescue locomotive provision and short platform operation.

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7.    Key Opportunities and Risks

The following opportunities exist on the project:

  1. Possible ability to stop train at intermediate stops, with potential increase in passenger numbers.
  2. Link steam timetable with a connecting Scotrail service at Tain and Brora.

The following risks have been identified:

  1. Land ownership issues, including track bed, accesses and car parks
  2. Requirement to divert public utilities. It is recommended that public utilities be asked to provide details of their services in the vicinity.
  3. Public opposition to the service may occur, especially from immediate neighbours. This would be more likely if the train were stabled adjacent to domestic properties.
  4. Load carrying capacity of particular structures.
  5. Structural gauging issues.
  6. Security and vandalism.
  7. Requirement to upgrade water supply.
  8. Requirement to run train tender first.
  9. Availability of locomotive.
  10. Requirement for back up locomotive.
  11. Penalty costs for causing delay to other train services.
  12. Requirement for maintenance facilities.
  13. Lack of flexibility in timetabling. It would be likely that one path would be provided in each direction only.
  14. Short platform at Dunrobin Castle station.
  15. Availability of sidings for long-term usage.
  16. Requirement to upgrade Tain and possibly Brora stations.

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8.    Conclusions

From an operational and technical perspective, the proposed introduction of a steam service between Tain and Dunrobin appears to be a potentially feasible project. This does not take into account the commercial viability of the proposal.

Key issues to address include rolling stock availability, the provision of suitable infrastructure, land ownership and the large numbers of approvals required.

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9.    Recommendations

It is recommended that:

  1. The client determines the ownership of all land required for the construction and operation of the railway.
  2. The client seeks advice on the availability of grant funding for both the capital and maintenance costs of the project.
  3. Discussions are entered into with other heritage railways, especially those in the Highlands.
  4. Enter initial discussions with the planning authority in order to gauge their reaction to the proposal.
  5. The community group should utilise an existing licensed train operating company rather than endeavouring to set up a new one.
  6. A further study should be carried out to identify the detailed requirements and costs for the proposed service, as well as to enter into discussions with the various rail organisations and the local authority.
  7. Market research is carried out on likely numbers of passengers to enable a business case to be compiled.

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Read Mike Lunan, FoFNL Convener's response.

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