Far North - Forty Years On
by Dr Adrian Varwell
In 1970 I was appointed Highland Area Secretary for the Scottish Association for Public Transport. The immediate focus was on the Kyle Line, then under threat of closure, but I was conscious that unless there were serious proposals for the long-term future of the Far North Line, it could be next on the closure list. The famous "MacPuff" campaign in the 1960's had won a reprieve, but for how long?
Industrial development in the Cromarty Firth area in the early 1970's had brought some welcome freight to the Far North line, with traffic to the aluminium smelter, and with other private sidings installed at Evanton and Saltburn. However, the passenger service had remained the same for many years, and had not responded to the growing population around the Cromarty Firth. SAPT felt it was time to examine the prospects for the line, and a small group prepared the first SAPT Study Paper, The Far North Line: a plan for the future, published in October 1972.
The paper was well received by local authorities from Inverness to Caithness, and it is interesting to look back over forty years to see what has (and has not) come from that report.
The first success came with the re-opening of Alness Station in May 1973. The occasion was marked with a DMU Charter from Alness to Lairg, which at least proved that DMUs could work the line and thus enhance the service at the southern end, at least! Muir of Ord followed in October 1976, but it was some years later that Beauly was re-opened with its unique short platform.
The most significant recommendation of the Study Paper was the construction of the Dornoch cut-off. Alas, the roads lobby had a Dornoch Bridge in its sights, and when the bridge was approved in the mid-80's I wrote an article for the Press and Journal advocating that the bridge be constructed to take road and rail. I was not living on the mainland at the time, so I am not aware of all that followed, but the campaign for a new rail route was taken up by many agencies, including British Rail, and it seems to remain a live option, despite the absence of government backing.
Another recommendation was the construction of a direct chord from Halkirk to Thurso, with trains diverted via Thurso en-route to Wick. The railway operators have managed to implement the second half of that idea without the chord! This is a shame, for it could be built at relatively small cost, and the reversals at Georgemas Junction would be avoided. (A triangular junction would enable the introduction of steam specials to the line - but that's another matter!)
The overall operation of the line has changed so much since 1972, with four daily trains serving Caithness and the shorter-distance services as far as Lairg. Radio-signalling has been a valuable innovation. Limited speed improvements at the southern end of the line have been offset by speed restrictions at open level crossings: hopefully the installation of new barriers will bring about a reduction in timings.
Sadly the freight traffic of the early seventies was not sustained, and the present levels could be much enhanced with better pro-rail policies. Better promotion of the line for tourists could also make a valuable contribution to the future of the line.
What else remains to be achieved? Hopefully Conon Bridge will be re-opened soon, and Kirkhill, Evanton and Halkirk must surely follow. The provision of a passing place, perhaps at Kirkhill, is required to enable a regular-interval service to operate on the line. However, I'm not sure if I will ever catch a train to Dornoch!