125 years on the North railway line
Between March 18, 1985 and June 18, 1986, there were high hopes for a Dornoch Firth rail bridge which, along with the introduction of Sprinters, would bring our 19th century railway into the 20th century, if only for its last decade. The Dornoch rail crossing scheme was abandoned because although £10.5 million was available the Government refused to put up the shortfall of £1.5 million one-off payment, preferring instead to continue their £600 million annual subsidy to London Transport. However, the Sprinters arrived in December 1988, only to disappear again to replace a faulty batch of trains which were apparently an absolutely vital necessity in Portsmouth and Southampton.
The forces of nature had brought the line into headline TV news back in 1978 with the rescue of snowbound passengers by helicopter from the county march at the Fairy Hillock between Forsinard and Altnabreac. Then, on February 7, 1989, the Ness Viaduct was swept away by flood waters. Despite fears to the contrary, the bridge was replaced and in the meantime the Sprinters were brought by road to Muir of Ord and the service maintained by a bus link from Dingwall to Inverness.
So we sing "Happy Birthday" to the Caithness and Sutherland railway, 125 years old today and still going, maybe not exactly "strong" but having survived blizzards and floods, governments of different persuasions, politicians and economists.
The lack of a Dornoch rail bridge remains an issue for many. Back in 1986 the campaign was summed up as "No Dornoch rail crossing, goodbye Highland line." Railtrack and ScotRail have pledged to improve the infrastructure and speed up journey times.
Although the trains cannot compete in hours and minutes with the A9 road, the introduction of Class 158 Express Sprinters and the £1 million facelift of Wick and Thurso stations are an indication of a secure future for Britain's most northerly railway.