Growing Far North Traffic
In January I concluded my article with "Putting freight on rail brings benefit to the environment and to the economics of the line. Building business builds the future." Given built-in government subsidy for rural rail I make no apology for returning to the theme.
There is encouraging news. The freight train operator EWS is investing in upgrading the line from Georgemas to Thurso thus enabling their Class 66 locomotives to access the yard at Thurso where the local operator is seeking a Freight Facilities Grant. Further south, from November oil will again be delivered by rail to the distribution depot at Lairg with the introduction of a weekly train from the BP refinery at Grangemouth. Highland Railway Development Officer, Frank Roach, continues working on further projects. Each freight train that runs generates Access Payments towards the maintenance of the railway infrastructure.
On the passenger side the five year campaign for a winter Sunday service has paid off. ScotRail are running a winter afternoon train south returning north from Inverness at 18.30. ScotRail are taking the commercial risk. FoFNL are sharing in marketing this facility which we have long sought to enable people in the north to come and go on Sunday evenings from a weekend away.
These steps towards the greater use of the line complement the Rockwater pipes traffic, the daily Safeway trains and the anticipated timber loadings. Freight traffic is not time sensitive: passengers make choices whether for comfort, frequency, price, reliability, safety or time on journey. On another page Frank Roach summates the cost of the Dornoch crossing route at £37 million for a travel time saving in the order of 27 minutes. Regardless of the existing and potential limited number of travellers or the need to protect services to mid-Sutherland, one fact stands out. Rail cannot compete on time alone with a 2¼ hour car journey between Caithness and Inverness. Rail survives on major traffic flows.
This should not prevent pressure for purposeful costed improvements. The 1996 Report from Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick commissioned by Railtrack with funding support from the Highland Rail Partnership on possible improvements to the Far North Line should be actioned. The prospect of freight trains running through to Thurso calls for a re-examination of a west to north avoiding line at Georgemas with its commensurate effect of reducing passenger train times.
Writing on Sunday 7 October I am conscious of possible terrific change both within the railway industry and beyond. The collapse of Railtrack plc needs to herald an era of both reasoned strategic foresight and a simplified pattern of railway ownership.