125 Years On The North Railway Line
The Down Trains from Inverness were so called because, in railway company parlance, you travel 'down' from or 'up' to the companies' headquarters or principal station. They were at 10.35am (six hour journey to Wick), 5.15pm (similar to 1999 though 100 years ago it reached Wick at 11.20pm) and 6.40pm which arrived in Wick at a quarter past one the next morning. Wick to Edinburgh single tickets cost 58s 9d (£2.94) for first class and 24s 6d (£1.23) for third class. Third-class passengers from Thurso paid the same fare as Wick passengers, though first-class tickets were 1s 3d (6p) less. Cheap fares were available on the 8am train on Tuesdays and Thursdays which cost 40s (£2) (first class) and 18s (90p) (third) for singles from Wick or Thurso to Edinburgh or Glasgow, while returns were 66s 8d (£3.34) or 33s 4d (£1.67).
There were five trains a day from Wick to Thurso and four from Thurso to Wick. The extra service from Wick was provided by Thurso's mail train passenger coaches returning from Georgemas at 3.15am after the mail train had set off to Inverness.
Special trains were run to take fresh fish to London and other places in the south when the quantity exceeded 40 tons. Special trains were also arranged for livestock when there was sufficient traffic to justify it. Defence works required huge amounts of timber to be transported.
As well as serving the Caithness community, the North line has been a valuable national asset. Scapa Flow was of great strategic importance during the First World War, and to cope with increased traffic the Highland Railway Company ordered two huge powerful 4-4-0 locomotives, No. 73 Snaigow and No. 74 Durn.
The Jellicoe specials, as the troop trains were known, were an everyday sight along with freight trains carrying munitions and equipment. In the opposite direction a large exodus of Caithness men, off to fight for king and country, filled the south-bound trains.
Train schedules in the twenties were slower, with journeys of over seven hours, but by the late thirties there were more and faster trains on the line. In summer 1938 trains left Wick and Thurso at 8.50am, calling at all stations, followed at 10.10am by a fast service, and there was another stopping service at 3.30pm. Arrival times in Inverness were 2.52pm, 3.20pm and 9pm. Trains from Inverness at 6.45am, 10.25am and 4.10pm arrived at Wick/Thurso at 12.54, 4.19 and 8.59.
World War Two was soon to disrupt the day-to-day life of the nation again, and the North line played an important role as RAF and Navy personnel headed north to bases and ships. Post-war timetables reflected the toll of the war on railway equipment and only two trains a day, taking six and six-and-a-half hours, covered the whole route to Inverness.
The next decade is best remembered for the severe winter of 1955 and "Operation Snowdrop". A severe blizzard in the early afternoon of Wednesday, January 12, brought chaos to the county. Ploughs had kept the line clear between Wick and Helmsdale and and the afternoon train left Wick on time, with 10 passengers, at 3.35 only to run into a deep drift at Bower station. Meanwhile, the northbound train had reached Altnabreac and had to wait there as the plough was stuck at Georgemas.
A relief engine from Wick became snowbound at Watten but fortunately, as even the smallest station was staffed in those days, the passengers were given food and accommodation for the night. The line was cleared to rescue the passengers next day and subsequently reopened on the Friday.
A second blizzard, starting on the night of Wednesday, February 16, meant that no trains could run for some days. Food and supplies were dropped by helicopter to remote communities - including the railway workers, 40 in number, who were working to clear the line at Clayock, one-and-a-half miles north of Georgemas Junction. Eight passengers travelling north could get only as far as Helmsdale so they completed their journey to Wick on the Helmsdale fishing boat Sheena Mackay.Just as things were returning to normal by the end of the month, a further blizzard on Monday, February 28, caused another four day break in the train service.
Following the nationalisation of the railways in 1947 there were gradual improvements to the country's network as ageing steam locomotives were replaced. Southern England, Liverpool and Glasgow enjoyed the benefits of electrification and elsewhere the buzz word was "dieselisation". Another way of speeding up end-to-end journey times was the closure of stations, and in June 1960 the 13th was an unlucky day for many Highland communities, when 24 stations north of Dingwall lost their train services (including Alness and Muir of Ord, which eventually re-opened). The Wick to Inverness journey time was slashed by about 40 minutes to less than 5 hours.
In 1972, the issue of closure notices for the Kyle line rekindled fears of the axing of the North line which had survived the Beeching cuts of the late sixties. The resistance against closing of the Kyle line, based mainly on the social need of communities which had no reliable road in winter, was successful and led to a new lease of life. New marketing initiatives saw local passengers rubbing shoulders - quite literally when the trains were over-crowded in summer months - with young European backpackers, Canadians and Americans of more mature years searching out the land of their ancestors, sprightly 70-year-olds with senior citizen railcards, and families on rail-inclusive holidays. Freight traffic declined despite a short-lived enterprise to send Caithness peat to the Welsh borders.
Another economic study, the Serpell Report, was published in January 1983 and recommended the closure of the whole railway system north of Edinburgh and Glasgow. With Margaret Thatcher's Tory Government in power at Westminster, would this be the end of the line?
Suddenly prospects brightened. A dynamic young manager, Chris Green, took charge of Scottish Region and in July 1984 RETB signalling was introduced with a big injection of European Community funds. As with the poll tax we were the guinea pigs for an experiment - but, apart from a few frustrating delays when radio communication broke down, this experiment proved successful.