scotland (4K)
The Friends of the Far North Line
Cairdean Na Loine Tuath
the campaign group for rail north of Inverness - lobbying for improved services for the local user, tourist and freight operator

Dornoch Rail Link

The article "A Better Railway for The North", in Issue 34, June 2005 prompted a lengthy response from recently joined Mark Norton, Forsinard. At the time I felt that his letter and my reply were too long to reproduce in a newsletter so I offered the Dornoch Rail Link activists the opportunity to contribute to the newsletter and Mark Norton was delegated to make that contribution which follows. However, in view of later developments I considered it essential to give this matter a thorough airing.

"I have noted, with some interest, the argument that it would unnecessarily raise expectations amongst the communities of the Far North if a more pro-active stance concerning the Dornoch Rail Link were to be taken, as expressed in your article "A Better Railway for The North". I would express disagreement with this point of view, and I would state that the Friends of the Far North Line, in pursuance of their stated aims of "development of services for local residents and tourists alike", have a duty to press for strategic improvements to the Far North Line capacity in order to achieve this aim, in addition to development of the existing line.

The construction of the Dornoch Firth railway link is a logical and necessary realisation of that aim. This would maximise the existing customer usage throughout the region which the Far North Line serves, by making the railway a more relevant and practicable form of transport to those in Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, as well as adding new custom to the Line in the form of extra traffic from Dornoch and the surrounding region. I absolutely believe that the communities of Lairg, Rogart, Ardgay and elsewhere can be made to benefit from the Dornoch Firth link as well as the communities in Caithness and North/East Sutherland. The Committee of the FOFNL have a duty to the people of Caithness and the Orkneys, in addition to other areas of the North Highlands, to press for improvements to the railway services to this area on a strategic level as well as on a tactical level. These duties are expressed very clearly in the Constitution of the Friends of the Far North Line.

We need to discuss this issue openly and without distortion. The rundown of Dounreay and other centres of employment up here, the horrendous cost of road fuel in the Highlands, the increasing greenhouse gas emissions from road transport and the high reliance on tourism as a source of income make the discussion and promotion of this project a crucial priority. We need to improve rail transport up here in order to secure investment to offset the issues I have outlined and also to provide a realistic alternative means of transport to the car. Locals and tourists will not like using a railway service to get to and from the North Highlands the speed of which is reminiscent of the immediate post-war era. Please do not neglect this issue.

I look forward to this issue being discussed at the forthcoming AGM.

Yours sincerely,
Mark Norton, FoFNL membership number 413"

Mr. Norton had drawn attention to the fact that he was a regular contributor to the Press on this subject, Press and Journal 13/5/05, John o'Groat Journal and Northern Times 24/6/05, Scotsman and Inverness Courier 13/9/05, Press and Journal 12/9/05 and at the risk of some duplication I have decided to share with you his letter to the Scotsman.

He writes:

"George Kerevan, in his article, "We cannot afford to let our manufacturing die" (Opinion, 25 August), says that we need to use local market opportunities, such as regeneration of Scotland's railways. I would like to state the case in favour of the development and expansion of an important part of the railway network, the Far North line, connecting Inverness to Wick and Thurso in Caithness.

Of particular concern is the train journey times (over four hours from Inverness to Wick, and 3 hr 52 min from Inverness to Thurso) to cover about 120 miles, compared to around 2 hr 15 min by road between the same locations. This is a serious handicap to the expansion of rail travel in the Far North, and does not encourage use by locals or tourists.

There has been an ongoing campaign to shorten train times substantially on this line, principally involving the construction of the Dornoch bridge rail link, in addition to upgrading of the line to 90 mph and double- tracking part of the line as suggested in the Corus proposal in February. Forty-five minutes can be saved from the present timetable by the construction of this rail link short cut via Dornoch across Loch Fleet and the Dornoch Firth. Proposals also exist for the retention and development of the Lairg section of the line as well.

It has been asserted, by Richard Ardern, the previous chairman of the pressure group Friends of the Far North Line, and others, that the postulated time savings using the Dornoch rail link would need the trains to run at speeds of up to 150 mph to save 45 minutes on the timetable and would in reality save only 30 minutes, at most. I have done some calculations to test the veracity of his conclusions.

The best time for the 40 miles of the Far North section between Golspie and Tain via Lairg is one hour, giving the train an average speed of 40 mph. This includes five stops and at least two crossings where the train has to slow to a crawl.

Assuming that the Dornoch link section is 15 miles long, as Mr Ardern states, then the time in which the train would cover that distance at 40 mph would be 15 x (60/40). More time could be saved if other sections of the Far North line are upgraded to 90 mph, and other improvements are made (e.g. the Thurso-Georgemas-Halkirk chord). This could shave off another 30 minutes, in addition to the 45-minute Dornoch time saving, giving a shortening of at least 1 hr 15 min in total. This would give a reduction, in the Thurso-Inverness times, from 3 hr 45 min to 2 hr 30 min.

This would encourage many more people to use the Far North line, and create an additional customer base in Dornoch and Embo, along with greatly expanding rail freight capacity. Is this not worth pursuing? "

Given that Mark Norton, in his submission at the beginning of this article, refers to a discussion without distortion it was felt that the above could not go unanswered and the Scotsman has published Richard Ardern's response which I reproduce below. The issue of the Dornoch Rail Link and how it is being handled by the present committee has now assumed such proportions that I make no apologies for ensuring that both sides of the argument are known to our members. We have deliberately kept a low profile on the Corus Report because it says so little, except to raise expectations of reaching Inverness in 2 hours from Thurso, without giving any details of how, and at what cost, it will be achieved. It is interesting that those concerned with this issue now recognise the impossibility of a 2 hour journey time from Thurso (not Wick) to Inverness.

It seems a pity that the public discussion of this issue has descended into the realms of personal attacks and the use of ridicule as evidenced by part of Mr. Norton's letter to the Inverness Courier where he states "This proves that the assertion that a train going over the Dornoch Link would have to do 150 miles per hour is frankly ridiculous and wrong."

Richard Ardern's reply states:

"Sir, Mark Norton's letter today is yet another example of the statistical nonsense being talked by a small faction who are jeopardising rational discussion of the merits of a Dornoch rail link by constantly overplaying the likely time savings.

The nonsense of postulated 150 mile speeds is coming from his own camp. They were constantly peddling the myth that 45 minutes could be saved from the old schedule of 51 minutes between Golspie and Tain in force until June this year. The shorter distance of 15 miles via Dornoch would therefore have to have been covered in 6 minutes at an impossible average of 150 miles per hour without even stopping at Dornoch! Now that the Golspie to Tain schedule has sadly been eased to between 58 and 60 minutes, the saving possible from a Dornoch link increases from between 30 and 33 minutes to a new saving of 40 minutes. This uses my previous assumption of a line speed of 75 miles per hour permitting an 18 minute journey time with the stop at Dornoch included.

The line between Inverness and Wick desperately needs speeding up as does that between Inverness and Aberdeen. All the single track Highland lines need extra passing loops to cope with increasing traffic, and a fourth daily service from Caithness at a reasonable hour like 08.30 would stimulate the local economy and also provide a useful connection from Orkney. There is a lot of work to be done and fortunately some good people are getting on with this without feeling the need to write inaccurate letters to the press."

We await the AGM with interest when I am sure this matter will receive a great deal of attention.