Railfreight on the North Line - A rising star?
An important component in the economic justification of the Inverness to Caithness railway will surely be the re-emergence of railfreight as a credible means of transport of goods following a period of decline which stretches back to WW1.
The reasons for that decline are numerous but it is useful to recap on some of these. The railways emerged from WW2 physically degraded and with an entrenched public service ethos. The abandonment of the "integration" experiment of the forties led to the burgeoning growth of the road haulage industry. Highly rated traffic was easily picked off as railways as a "common carrier" published a public rate for each traffic. The ASLEF strike of 1955 was a critical point in the loss of traffic as was a 40-year battle to shed manpower in line with economic realities. Productivity of road haulage grew with the improvement of the road network and the size of vehicles from 16 tonnes to 44 tonnes over the years and trailer length from 24ft. to a present 45ft. A sceptical government constrained rail freight investment and the railway was saddled with the 12 tonne, 4 wheel van often unbraked and travelling at under 40mph.
As a line at the "back of beyond" the North line would get little attention despite the natural advantage of long distance transits which would compensate for any final road delivery. The end of freight came with the collapse of the Ness Bridge when the remaining coal traffic ceased. In the run up to privatisation Transrail started the Caithness Enterprise service on a weekly basis with traffic such as coil steel for Norfrost, coal and returning steel scrap. It is fortunate that on the establishment of EWS they took a benign view towards the line and matters improved with a daily service conveying the Safeway containers and an increased use of the line by the Grants of Norfrost. Numerous difficulties currently face the road haulage industry. Unfettered competition has forced down rates to unviable levels, a shortage of drivers has forced up wages, congestion has damaged a reputation for reliability and the working time directive will, principally for overnight trunking, force up costs by 10-20%. On the other hand despite the Railtrack fiasco the railfreight industry is starting to get its act together. New Class 66 locos improve reliability and reduce maintenance. Transit times of intermodal trains can beat road with one Glasgow - London train transiting in under 6 hours and running at up to 90mph. Payloads of trains can be increased to more than 1000 tonnes with very little increase in marginal costs. On track competition now between five companies has challenged complacency.
The transfer of traffic from road to rail bound for Caithness largely lies with the commercial acumen and determination of the three partners that is EWS, Norfrost Haulage and Thurso Building Supplies. It would be easy to create a wish list of potential traffic such as more retail goods, agricultural supplies and Liquid Natural Gas which is taken by road tanker from Grangemouth to Wick and Thurso several times a week. However a longer term strategic view would highlight three potential traffics.