Caithness And Orkney Deserve Better
Trains which connect with other services at times when you wish to travel would be the aspiration for most passengers. Whether you are starting from Stromness, Wick or Alness and travelling to Inverness, Aberdeen or Edinburgh the aspiration is still the same. Sadly, the Far North Line is falling somewhat short of this goal for many people.
In its policy aims published in the September issue and discussed at the November AGM, the Friends of the Far North Line Committee has called for the restoration of the fourth daily return working between Wick and Inverness and the implementation of rail/ferry connections through Thurso to and from Orkney to reflect the increased frequency of ferry services.
When Northlink announced in October that they were changing their sailing schedules from early 2005, we were appalled to see that train connections would be seriously affected. We carried out some timetabling work and found out how difficult it can be to schedule an extra train north of Inverness. This is due to both lines to Wick and Kyle being entirely single track with often long sections between crossing loops and also due to the need to provide connections at Inverness.
We have come up with a possible scheme which would schedule the extra train to leave Wick after breakfast at 08.35 and arrive in Inverness for 12.20. The return train could leave Inverness after 14.00 and arrive in Wick by 18.00 in time for tea. This would give the whole line, but especially, Caithness and Sutherland, a greatly improved service. Breakfast and tea are the major time frames in the day for most travellers, but there would still be a need for the existing early morning departures and late evening arrivals especially where long distances are involved such as on the FNL.
The other great advantage would be improved ferry connections. The new train would provide a good connection at Thurso from the 06.30 sailing out of Stromness. The new return service would provide a good connection in to the 19.00 final sailing to Stromness. We also found that the first northbound service could run 30 minutes later at 07.50 from Inverness which would mean that it would have to return 30 minutes later at midday. Passengers travelling north to Orkney would have 30 minutes less to wait for the new 13.15 sailing and passengers from Elgin could also now connect in to this service.
Coming south, there might be a very tight 37 minute connection from the new 11.00 ferry ex Stromness. The train cannot be delayed more if it is to connect with the 16.55 Inverness to Glasgow. Such are the problems caused by the long single track sections between Helmsdale and Forsinard and between Forsinard and Georgemas. Timings of Kyle trains might also have to change slightly to maintain headways on the shared section between Inverness and Dingwall.
The indicative timetable (including new Invernet services to Tain/Invergordon) might look like:
It is very important to note that this timetable has no official standing it merely portrays a pattern that we would like to aim for. Any timetable on single track lines has to be a compromise and the skill is to get the best balance for all potential passengers. First ScotRail have been too busy to comment on the detail yet. We have accommodated current freight paths, but not the very recent idea of a Tain to Brora steam train.
We would sincerely hope that a pattern like this could be made to work for the lines north of Inverness, but it would require additional crews and rolling stock and the necessary funding. We are told by ScotRail that it would take a year to train new crew, so that might be the minimum timescale for implementation.
On funding, we are in the dark because details of the ScotRail franchise are not made public. We have shared the idea with two sources in Orkney and with the directly elected MSPs for the two areas. Jim Wallace has written to Nicol Stephen, the Transport Minister, and we await his reply to see whether the government will show interest as we think they should.
The funding required would be quite substantial as the line is presently run on the minimum number of units and staff and both are deployed as intensively as possible. We have suggested to government that additional funding might come from the economic development budget as the scheme would create welcome extra employment in Caithness. We also suggested funding might come from the integrated transport budget. The line is part of the Trans European Network and is thus seen by the European Commission as an integral part of the through route to and from Orkney. Caithness has recently benefited from the route development fund for new air services. Maybe there should be a similar fund for new rail services?
It was sad to see a Scrabster to Inverness bus service end up on its side on icy roads recently. We think the Orkney passengers should be encouraged to use the railway. With the change in the ferry timetable this is less likely to happen. In addition to the benefits to Orkney travellers, the idea of a fourth train would benefit Caithness with extra rail employment, as well as more visitors and greater flexibility for local people and businesses. The position is serious and the line needs this shot in the arm. FOFNL members are quite at liberty to promote the idea and lobby the operator and their MSPs on this.