Freight has always been the lifeblood of the railway, making all else possible, and its growth on the FNL in recent years has been encouraging. It is therefore saddening to see some of it draining away.
The daily Safeway train has vanished, as a result of takeovers and company restructuring. With it has gone the attached vans of building supplies to Thurso and freezer components for Norfrost to Georgemas, which had become an almost daily working. For the last 2 summers timber trains have been loading overnight at Kinbrace. These are now suspended, at least for the time being, as a result of EWS increasing their charges to an extent the forestry company find unacceptable. Negotiations are continuing however, and maybe some workable alternative can be achieved for 2006. Obviously we are keen to see both these workings resumed when practicable. This summer it is rumoured the timber loading bank may be pressed into alternative service for ballast storage in preparation for track relaying at Forsinard. This is scheduled for 'mid-November, and is likely to involve suspending train services for a few days.
The pipe train only puts in a very rare appearance, operating on an 'as required' basis. By coincidence this elected - excuse the pun - to run in the early hours of 5 May; 23 wagons (11 carriers and 12 intermediate match trucks), travelling at a brisk pace behind a class 66, whose pulling power on our stiff gradients remains impressive. Happily the oil traffic to Lairg keeps the flag flying. If government claims to be encouraging freight transfer from road to rail were less notable for lethargy, and if competitive pricing was keener, the FNL could be pretty busy, especially when one would think that the high cost of fuel and restricted hours of HGV drivers in this country would make rail more attractive.
HRP and Highland Council are discussing trials of road salt to Inverness and Lairg with JG Russell. The downside of transporting road salt by rail is the corrosion of the rail wagons by the salt. At present, road salt is being successfully transported to Grangemouth by rail in bulk containers with a plastic liner inserted to prevent the corrosion and to keep the interior of the container clean. Inverness can handle containers but a special road trailer with the ability to load a container from rail to road and vice versa would be required.
The £1.2 billion Delny/Invergordon Timber Plant will require 3.8 million tonnes per annum of round wood. 75% will be supplied by sea leaving a shortfall which, hopefully, will be partly supplied by rail. The output of the plant ie paper and pulp, will also require transportation. The Highland Deephaven Project would seem to be at a standstill. There is very little prospect of freight for the Far North Line other than timber which, at present, is being supplied from Eastern Europe at a low price.