I am disappointed that Christian Wolmar is reiterating the arguments that belong to the 1960s. I mistakenly believed that the principle of chopping rural routes had been discredited on the accounting methods employed and the effect on the major routes they fed, and that replacement buses proved to be unreliable and unpopular. Three years ago a report commissioned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise found that the Highland rail network was worth £50m in tourism spend alone.
As a resident on the Far North Line I strongly refute his claim that it is drab and slow. The 154 mile journey from Inverness to Thurso, the busier of the Caithness termini, takes 3 hours 40 mins - an average speed of 42 mph. I feel this compares favourably with routes such as Edinburgh - Brighton (9 hours 40 mins. 49.7 mph). The bus journey to Thurso takes 3 hours 30 minutes. Christian Wolmar may dislike Class 156 travel, but as we are unlikely to have tilting DMUs or loco hauled stock up here they are perfectly adequate, and carry bikes, parcels (some communities here still get their newspapers by rail) and pushchairs. The trains have catering trolleys all year round, and accessible toilets. They are reliable, too, as a check on ScotRail's performance figures will prove. A few weeks ago the A9 trunk road was closed for two days, blocked with 12' snowdrifts; the railway ran to time.
The time differential between rail and bus will be further eroded this year. Railtrack are committed to journey time reductions, and have just installed a £180,000 plunger system at Georgemas to take 3 minutes off the time to Thurso, 6 minutes off the time to Wick. Wolmar has failed to acknowledge the significance of the route. The railway serves inland, by-passed communities, many of which have no other public transport provision. The bus could not replicate that rail route. The following stations are not served by the A9 trunk route taken by the Inverness-Thurso bus: Muir of Ord, Dingwall, Alness, Fearn, Ardgay, Culrain, Invershin, Lairg, Rogart, Kildonan, Kinbrace, Forsinard, Altnabreac, Scotscalder and Georgemas.
Far from being drab, may I suggest the swan-inhabited lochs beside the Kyle of Sutherland between Tain and Ardgay, the climb up to Lairg past the bubbling river Shin, the seal coast between Golspie and Helmsdale and the vast peatlands beyond Kinbrace inhabited by mighty stags are just a few locations which put most rail journeys to shame? It is a green tourism corridor. Stations are once again becoming a focus of activity: tearoom (Dingwall), bunkhouse (Rogart), museum (Dunrobin), and wildlife centre (Forsinard). Culrain for Carbisdale Castle Youth Hostel, is the biggest generator of traffic on the line.
The route is beginning to thrive. ScotRail report a 7% increase in ridership aided by competitive fares, and a local residents' railcard brings prices below the coach fare. It's not just for the tourists either. Subject to European funding, Beauly station could be open in January 2000, building on the success of the Dingwall Commuter service. The 1715 north from Inverness frequently loads in excess of 100 in the winter months. Muir of Ord has become the fastest growing station in the Highlands with some 65 journeys per day, demonstrating a sea change in local travelling habits. The Travelling Classroom, taking primary school children to Kyle and Helmsdale, has been widely acclaimed both for its educational value and for its role in reducing incidents of trespass and vandalism to near zero. And, horror of horrors for Mr Wolmar, coach firms such as Shearings are increasingly putting their customers onto trains and meeting them with the bus at the other end, representing sizeable business for ScotRail. We even had steam here last year, injecting £200,000 into the local economy.
And that's just the passenger railway. With freight up 50% in Scotland, the Far North Line has more than played its role. From no freight in 1995, this week (24th March 1999) will see movements of fertiliser, flagstone, aviation fuel and timber, while the much publicised pipe trains will resume with a new contract in the summer. Freight has been handled at 9 locations on the line. This all has travelled by road in the past, but the environmental benefits of rail are now widely recognised. The Highlands is set to double timber production in the next ten years; the roads simply cannot cope. Many minor roads have had 7.5 tonne weight limits imposed because the Highland Council has just £3.6 million to maintain a network that covers an area the size of Belgium. An 8 tonne axle load causes 65500 times more wear than the average car axle.
Wolmar suggests letting the local authority take control. Through the Highland Rail Network Development Partnership, a model for pragmatism, the Highland Council has already played an active part in rail's resurgence. The Scottish Parliament which has responsibility for integrated transport strategy in Scotland will recognise the critical importance of rail services to that policy and is unlikely to vote for increased road congestion by cutting rail investment.
But perhaps the most important point of all is social inclusion. You can travel from Wick to London, Plymouth or even Aberystwyth in a day in reasonable comfort in a mode that's five times safer than a bus, and ten times safer than the private car. We celebrate the 125th anniversary in July this year. Perhaps Mr Wolmar may care to join us.