Letters to the Editor
I have been reading my recently arrived edition of Far North Express and must compliment you on the depth and relevance of the content. The Station Usage figures are particularly interesting. I have recently travelled quite a bit by rail both on the FNL and further afield to London and York, the latter via Settle and back north via Haltwhistle, both passing through sparsely populated rural areas. It was interesting to compare these services with those north of Inverness.
The speed of the trains was faster, and seemed to have more urgency than on the FNL. Both benefit from larger populations at either end so trains were full. However, there seemed to be more local journeys involving intermediate stations. I think there are two lessons here for the railway industry and for us to push for. First, we need to get every minute knocked off the journey time between Inverness and Caithness that we can. Barriers on the level crossings should allow this, as happens elsewhere. I sat recently at a level crossing at Spellbrook in Hertfordshire watching the Stansted Express pass at 90 mph, and couldn't but contrast this with Delny or Halkirk. Secondly, the message needs to get over of the value of taking the train for local journeys, certainly of comparable value to fuelling one's car, never mind the other costs, especially if a railcard holder.
Part 3 of the article by Gordon Pettitt was thought provoking, but I am a bit wary of his arguments on the economics of running trains north of Tain. It seems to follow the same logic as Dr Beeching (I lived through that and have been reading BEECHING - the Inside Track) and they rely on raw statistics, not total accounting and not looking at travel needs and possibilities in 20 or 50 years' time, especially with a developing renewable energy industry in the north. After all, the reasons for keeping the north line and the Inverness, Perth and Aberdeen lines open were based on social and other needs. The closure of the Deeside and Buchan lines came just a few years before the oil industry arrived. What a lost opportunity!
I would contest the notion that there is poor tourist potential in Caithness. Has he enjoyed any breaks in the far north? In summer, trains are well filled and the season seems to extend slowly as the years go by. Cyclists coming to the area use it extensively. The line is a boon for patients, especially elderly, going to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, as we often have to do; many people do not enjoy the cramped and bumpy bus journey down the A9. We do lack a major population centre, but that is no reason to write us off. Highland Council accepts the extra costs of running schools and services around the north. The government supports the crofting way of life, although far from economic in narrow terms. The same arguments apply to the FNL.
I go back to the Settle and Carlisle and its reprieve in the 1980s. The local group really turned the fortune of the line around. Positive thinking is needed with the Far North Line over its whole length. As I was weeding our community garden this afternoon, I watched the 16.00 service to Inverness (staffed by an Inverness crew) head off south again. I thought of the popularity of it with visitors in the summer whom I have regularly met doing the double journey in a day. Could we not make this a "heritage" train for instance? (I agree that this is blue sky thinking, but not pie in the sky, I hope)
I often shake my head when in Milburn Road, Inverness and see the class 67 off the overnight sleeper just sitting there idle. Could we not power the sleeper north with a class 37(or two, one dead, in case of problems, and DB Schenker is pensioning them off anyway) then continue it north on the 10.37 service with the seated coach still attached plus one or more vehicles. Then we have a Euston - Thurso/Wick service unheard since the days of the Jellicoe expresses in wartime. The longest rail journey in Britain back on track.
Two class 37s leaving Wick on the engineers' inspection train last Friday were an uplifting sight and sound!
Other things should be catering on the 06.20, returning from Lairg on the northbound service (it is not impossible to roll the trolley across between units, or have a trolley on both, with the attendant moving over) Free coffee/tea for passengers boarding this train north of Helmsdale would be very cheap inducement and a good marketing ploy. This is what I mean by positive thinking. And that is just one idea.
The proposal for the Georgemas chord to save time there seems to have gone from view. Yet the land is now in government hands, owned by the Forestry Commission for Scotland so more accessible. Not only would it cut time, but allow steam engines to turn when on society specials and also for snow ploughs to head south again on those occasions when needed.
FoFNL has always done a lot to improve the line over its whole length. I would hate to see efforts concentrated south of Tain. This would be a retrograde, not forward looking, view to take. Just look at the leader article on re-opening a station closed so long ago. Travel patterns and needs change, and economic use of fuel should be a prime influence on decisions. I note the slow creeping north of electrification. I only wish the Scottish Government would go for a full electrification of the country by say 2025, a major step in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. If the Scandinavians can run electric trains from Kiruna to Narvik, and have done so for nearly 100 years, then we can do so on the HML and north of Inverness.
While writing, I would like to compliment Neil Sinclair on his article a year ago on the Stanier 5MT engines (or 5P/5F as they were first dubbed) in the north. The only point I would make is that I never heard them referred to as Black Fives. They were always "Hikers" to north railwaymen, something I was able to confirm with a retired engine driver recently.
I'd like to commend Gordon Pettitt for his series of excellent articles about the Far North Line (FNL). They were obviously written by someone with a wealth of detailed knowledge and long experience of the working railway and we need to take serious note of what such professional people tell us.
I was particularly struck by the theme in the last article that the FNL should be treated in two separate (though obviously linked) parts - the increasingly well-used Inverness - Tain section and the more lightly-trafficked Tain - Thurso/Wick section. I think there is a lot of sense in this, but I am concerned that the northern end isn't just "abandoned" - after all, in 2011/12, Thurso and Wick were the 4th and 8th busiest stations on the whole FNL. I wonder whether it would be practical for some trains to be split/joined at Tain so that there's less "fresh air" transported on the northern section while the other set is used again as part of the more intensive southern service? Is there potential for a more frequent Thurso-Wick local service, maybe via a new station at Halkirk (possibly replacing Georgemas)? Looking at providing a different level of service between summer and winter - particularly between Tain and Thurso/Wick - also seems to be a very sensible idea: this of course already happens on many other lines in the UK.
I also agree with Mr Pettitt that the FNL has less tourist potential than the rail lines to Kyle, Oban, Fort William and Mallaig but I think this is due mainly to the greater distances involved from the South. I have travelled on the FNL simply for the pleasure of the journey - ever-changing scenery, etc - and have stepped off the train to enjoy Dunrobin Castle, the RSPB sites at Forsinard, and the attractions of Thurso. Even better publicity about the delights of the FNL and even wider windows on the trains - shades of the observation car on The Orcadian - would help.
Just some thoughts of one lay rail-user of the fantastic FNL, one of Scotland's (? hidden) gems!
(As FNL trains consist of only one 2-car unit, it's not possible to split and join at Tain - Ed.)
I was most interested to read the short article by Richard Ardern in FNE 59 as Frank Spaven was a good friend of mine. He and I were responsible for initiating the rescue and preservation of most of the James Kennedy Gauge 1 Highland Railway Models in 1986 which are now preserved as The Kennedy Highland Railway Models Trust - a registered charity - that I have the honour of chairing.
Dr. Thomas L. Coombs,
Firhall Village, Nairn.