East West South - leave it to us to provide the North freight perspective.
Delivering The Goods - Thurso's Rôle
The good news of the opening of Thurso Building Supplies' freight terminal prompts a look back at the goods traffic that Thurso used to handle. History is always interesting in its own right but it might also give some ideas for future growth.
Highland transport services, the report of the Highland Transport Board published in 1967 gives many interesting statistics on the Far North Line. In 1963 the total tonnage of goods consigned on the Wick/Thurso line was around 194,000 tons received and 31,000 tons forwarded. These latter were mostly livestock, seed potatoes and "smalls". Inbound goods included 62,000 tons of grain and malt, 60,000 tons of coal, 15,000 tons of oil, 15,000 tons of fertiliser and 12,000 tons of "smalls". Only one third of this inbound tonnage was for destinations north of Invergordon.
Earlier figures for 1949 show that the total tonnage including livestock had declined from 335,000 tons. Parcels traffic, which had been over 500,000 in number in 1949, was still around the 400,000 level in each of the years 1963-1965. In 1962/3 426,000 gallons of milk were transported from Wick, Golspie and Dingwall. In 1959, 163,000 head of livestock, 458,000 parcels and 514,000 mail bags were carried on the line. This averages 1500 parcels and 1600 mailbags per day.
The livestock traffic was obviously seasonal, but during the spring and autumn sales periods special trains were run south from Thurso, Forsinard, Lairg and Dingwall. During four days of sales at the beginning of August 1959 Thurso dispatched 177 trucks of lambs and in the middle of the month Lairg dispatched 112 trucks in one day. Fish carryings in 1959 were Wick 1413 tons, Thurso (from Scrabster) 900 tons and Helmsdale 10 tons.
The importance of the link through Scrabster to and from Orkney is shown by 1959 figures of 375 tons of freight, 7,728 parcels and 53,040 mailbags passing through Thurso station. Traffic for UKAEA at Dounreay also passed through Thurso station and in 1962/3 comprised 7,121 consignments in and 2,325 outward consignments by rail. A consignment being defined very imprecisely as anything between three quarters of a ton and ten tons in weight.
The former importance of the railway to the primary industries in Caithness is apparent from the statistics of fish and livestock movements. It is also summed up by a picture that appeared in the local press some years ago of a row of shiny new agricultural tractors which had just arrived by train. Tonnages of freight varied from year to year and from season to season as also did numbers of passengers. The increase in the number of tickets issued at Thurso from 8,231 in 1938 to 82,207 in 1940 demonstrates how very challenging it must have been to accommodate all the traffic during the war.
Building materials carried on the line north of Dingwall declined from 9,238 to 2,253 to 527 tons in the years 1963 to 1965. Timber in 1959 amounted to 5,931 tons. These are the commodities that are coming back on to the line in 2002. Oil is already back at Lairg. It all gives a new meaning to the initials EWS - Everyware to Wick and Scrabster perhaps?