Passenger Services For Easter Ross
The years since Dr. Beeching's plan have seen a 30% rise in the population around the Inner Moray Firth. Whilst the Highlands had successfully fought off major railway closure by the early 1970s. the resulting pattern of train service north of Inverness has seen little permanent change over the last 25 years.
The basic weekday train service is three trains in each direction. The only permanent change has been the withdrawal of the Sunday morning train from Inverness to Lairg and back. In the 1980s there was a short experiment with a commuter train from Invergordon to Inverness. A fourth summer-only end-to-end train was tried for two seasons in the early 1990s. Neither initiative was sustained.
The success of the Dingwall - Inverness commuter train introduced earlier this year encourages a fresh look. The growth in population in mid Ross over this last decade has brought increased commuting into the regional centre at Inverness. There are also those who commute from Inverness to Dingwall also. Further north in Easter Ross the combined population of Alness and Invergordon of 12,000 and the catchment areas of Fearn and Tain stations of 9,000 remain to be tapped. The bridge over the Kyles of Sutherland accesses a further area around Dornoch. On the one hand the modernised A9 is a serious challenge to a rail passenger service, whilst on the other a service of three trains in each direction cannot be an attraction. The way ahead is to identify particular parts of the market which rail can hope to capture, and then to build on these.
FOFNL has five proposals:-
- start the morning Dingwall - Inverness commuter train from Tain
- a mid afternoon Inverness - Taim service
- a later afternoon return Tain - Inverness service
- a later evening Inverness - Tain service
- dedicated bus connections to/from Dornoch
ScotRail are to be encouraged in their pursuance of the first of these objectives, an extension of the morning commuter train to start back from Tain. Its introduction would be enhanced by a swift limited stop onward connection to Edinburgh leaving Inverness at or before 09.00.
The case for each of the remaining proposals is examined for its potential to attract both local and longer distance travel.
At present there is a six hour gap in northward departures from Inverness between 11.05 and 17.15 Thurso/Wick departures. Inevitably there is no connectual facility from either Central Scotland or Aberdeen over this length of the day. Likewise there is no facility for travel to and from Moray Firth towns to the east of Inverness. A service out of Inverness at around 15.20 to Tain could attract:-
- returning shoppers from Inverness and Dingwall
- connecting passengers from central Scotland and ideally Aberdeen
- after-school travel in Mid and Easter Ross
A returning service from Tain at around 16.30 would break into a gap in southbound services offering:-
- after school/work travel in Easter and Mid Ross
- commuter and leisure travel to Inverness
- onward connections with more acceptable arrival times at Aberdeen and Central Scotland
Lastly the proposal for a late Monday - Saturday Inverness - Tain train at around 20.20 would provide:-
- connections off the 12.00 from Kings Cross via Edinburgh, the busiest train into Inverness arriving at 20.06
- later connection from Aberdeen, enabling travel from that city after the end of a working day
- later optional travel facility for those returning from Inverness
These proposals envisage 5 trains each weekday in each direction between Tain and Inverness. A more frequent service produces wider travel options including:- more flexible part day trips between the towns on the line same day out and back travel to the major cities later return from Inverness.
Improvements attract custom. Given the commitment of the Highland Railway Network Partnership to Integrated Public Transport and the opportunities arising from the government's Rural Transport initiative, the provision of a bus link between Dornoch and Tain stations should follow.
This article deliberately takes a broad approach - it avoids discussing exact timings, the positioning of trains, or the use of particular passing loops. By its very nature railway infrastructure is less flexible than road transport. The challenge of identifying opportunities and applying flexibility to attract traffic becomes the greater.
This section of railway passes through the most populated part of the Highlands - let's optimise its use.