Dornoch Rail Link
Mark Norton, FoFNL member and Dornoch Rail Link Action Group (DorLAG) Co-ordinator was invited to discuss the benefits and issues concerning the Dornoch Rail Link for the Far North Line.
1. Our views on the Dornoch Link
It is the view of the Dornoch Rail Link Action Group, and others who support the Link, that all should be done to ensure that the Far North Line provides a credible, relevant, competitive (with the A9), economically, socially and environmentally sustainable mode of transport for the people of Caithness and Sutherland. The reasons for this are given in a brief summary below.
We do not believe that the Far North Line is capable of being developed to its full potential in its current form, owing to its topography compared with the A9 road. It should be recognised that the ongoing decommissioning of the Dounreay nuclear facility and the anticipated closure date of 2036 will have a massive impact on the economy of the Far North. Offsetting this impact will require improvements to the rail link to Caithness and elsewhere.
Rail transport has huge potential for the Far North. This is recognised for the following reasons:
- A proper rail service from Caithness to Inverness and beyond would encourage many more people to use the train to travel from the Far North (Caithness, Sutherland and the Orkneys) to the south and vice versa. This would reduce transport related CO2 emissions and pollution, reduce traffic congestion and also reduce dependence on the private car, which many people do not have access to.
- Working time directives and fuel costs add significantly to transport costs in the Far North as a whole. A fully developed rail service and infrastructure would contribute to reducing transport costs for businesses in the Far North, e.g. for timber. This is important with regard to encouragement of business creation and inward investment, particularly for Caithness post-Dounreay.
- Tourists would also travel to Caithness, Sutherland and the Orkneys in greater numbers by rail, increasing the total income generated from the tourist trade.
Improvements to infrastructure on the existing layout would cut journey times. Nevertheless, such improvements can only improve times by a maximum of 25 minutes, reducing Thurso-Inverness times to a minimum of 3 hours 20 minutes, still uncompetitive with the A9.
The Dornoch Link can cut a further 40-45 minutes off these times. This, combined with other improvements, would enable a total journey time reduction of 1 hour 10 minutes, cutting Thurso - Inverness journey times to 2 hours 35 minutes. This would be critical to helping the Line achieve its full potential as described above, in ways not possible without the Link.
It is recognised that the Dornoch Link may cause the communities at the Lairg Loop to have concerns about their railway services. Any decision to improve the Line with the Dornoch Link must take their concerns into cognisance and ensure that the Lairg Loop communities derive benefits from the Link as well.
Any decisions taken with regard to the Far North Line will have an impact on the future of the Line and the Caithness/Sutherland economy, thus affecting everyone in those areas irrespective of their use of the Line. Therefore it is considered that the construction of the Dornoch Rail Link is a pivotal part of any strategic upgrade of the Far North Line and must be implemented. The impending economic changes as detailed above make a positive resolution of this issue a matter of urgency.
2. Guide to the benefits of the Dornoch Link for the Far North Line
- It is agreed that the railway service from Inverness to the Far North, specifically North/ East Sutherland, Caithness and the Orkney ferry link is too slow and inadequate to meet the transport needs of the residents of these areas without recourse to a private car.
- The Tain - Dornoch - Golspie rail link is still recognised, by the 1999 Highland Council Structure Plan and elsewhere, that it would achieve a "considerable shortening of the journey time for rail passengers between Caithness/ South East Sutherland and Inverness". It would lead to a better used and more efficient Thurso/Wick - Inverness line.
- The CORUS pre-feasibility report study "A Better railway for the North" (December 2004) estimated that the Thurso/ Wick - Inverness time could be cut to around 2 - 2.5 hours. This could be achieved by the Link, other infrastructure improvements, restoration of double tracks and passing loops, track and signalling upgrading, which would enable non-stop express running between Tain and Inverness. The "Invernet" Lairg/Tain - Inverness commuter service would offer stopping services for intermediate stations.
- Dornoch town is a significant regional and population centre, and its reconnection to the Scotrail network (via the Link) would enable a 60 minute commuter service to and from Inverness, with additional usage coming from Dornoch's tourist and golf related business, Golspie, Brora and Helmsdale.
- It has been estimated that the basic Dornoch Firth and Loch Fleet crossings would cost around £37 million, rising to around £50-60 million for the associated infrastructure upgrade. This compares well with the ongoing expenditure on A9 road improvements.
- It should be noted that the Scottish Executive were willing to take account of the wider social inclusion, regional development and employment opportunities with regard to their contribution of £115 million to the £150 million cost of the Waverley link. These are applicable to the Far North with regard to the Dornoch Link.
- Previous experience of even minimalist rail investment elsewhere in Scotland (and the rest of the U.K.) has resulted in upsurges of passenger rail travel which have greatly exceeded the initial demand projections. One good example is the new rail links in Glasgow, which carry 34% more passengers than expected. There is every reason to believe that the Link would replicate this for Caithness, Orkney and Sutherland.
- A Dornoch Link would also improve the competitive position of railfreight transport to and from the Far North, by greatly reducing transit times and offsetting transport costs.