Far North Line Golden Jubilee 1963 - 2013
from long term decline to resurrection?
1963 was the year of publication of the Beeching Report which recommended the closure of all rail lines north of Inverness. The Far North Line survived as a result of the active leadership of Frank Thomson, then developer and proprietor of Invergordon Distillery and the McPuff campaign.
There has been a cost of survival: the removal of 17 passing loops and the six miles of double-track between Clachnaharry and Clunes (Kirkhill); the removal of all mechanical signalling; and the redundancy of station staff with exception of a single shift at Dingwall, Thurso and Wick booking offices. All parcels and regular freight traffic has gone.
During the intervening 50 years, the road provision along the A9 to the North has undergone dramatic improvement including the construction of three bridges - Kessock, Cromarty and Dornoch - shortening the road distance north by over 30 miles. At current prices, this investment must be more than £1 billion. The road distance from Inverness to Thurso is 110 miles as against 154 by rail. Wick is 103 miles by road as against 175 by rail (via Thurso).
Caithness, with a population of 30,000, is effectively an island separated from Easter Ross by 80 miles of sparsely populated country. Beyond the Pentland Firth, we have the Orkney Islands with a population of 20,000 and 800 active farming businesses. Caithness and Galloway, in the south-west, are the only mainland areas of Scotland to report a population decline between the 2001 and 2011 censuses. Caithness is suffering from the rundown of the Dounreay nuclear site although oil developments are emerging, with the upgrade of Scrabster harbour potentially to serve the west-of-Shetland oilfields.
In 1965, there were three daytime trains each of six coaches (including two vans) and with a journey time of between 4hr 10min and 4hr 30min for the journey between Inverness and Wick, a best speed of 38 mph but with no Sunday service. Trains split at Georgemas Junction and Thurso times were equivalent to times to Wick. Today we have four services, with one on Sunday. Class 158 two-car diesel multiple units take between 3hr 42min and 3hr 58 min to Thurso and, to Wick, 4hr 6min and 4hr 26 min with reversal at Georgemas and Thurso. In my travels last year (8 journeys by rail) none of my trains ran to time, being up to half-an-hour late. The present infrastructure seems unable to cope with the current service. Once I was taken to Georgemas by minibus as late-running by the northbound train meant that the crew could not have their minimum rest break of 40 minutes at Wick and the southbound Thurso stop was omitted.
Reference to the 1967 Highland Transport Services Report gives some insight into the situation in 1963. Trains carried an average of 200 persons per day in winter between Caithness and Inverness with traffic doubling in summer and again doubling on summer Saturdays. I calculate this as approximately 90,000 journeys per annum with each winter train carrying approximately 30 passengers. Passenger traffic rose to a few peaks in the year when the total capacity of the services was taken up. Parcels and mail were an important element in passenger trains which has now disappeared. The report suggested that a substitute bus service should not take appreciably longer than the summer rail service (4 hours). In 1963 the Highland Omnibus service to Wick took 5½ hours (including a 20 minute comfort stop) and the report did not think that a 5-hour road service was an adequate replacement for a 4-hour rail one.
Goods consigned over the FNL in 1963 amounted to 225,000 imperial tons of which 31,000 was forwarded and 194,000 received. Goods forwarded were mainly livestock, seed potatoes and sundries; goods received were broken down as coal 60,000 tons, grain and malt to Invergordon 62,000 tons, fertilisers 15,000 tons, oil 15,000 tons and parcels 12,000 tons. Other than the Lairg oil tanks, all this traffic has gone with the exception of the sporadic oil pipe and nuclear waste.
The left-hand table shows recent trends in approximate passenger traffic numbers in thousands; the right-hand one shows some other Highland stations for comparison over the same period:
It can be noted that the Highlands generally have not shared in the boom in rail travel experienced elsewhere, the principal reason being the lack of competitive speed over road journeys and the sparse service. However, compare this with the dramatic improvement of traffic on local services to Tain and Lairg in recent years, despite most of the stations being eccentric to the villages they serve. Dingwall now has 13 daily services instead of 5 in 1965, but journey times have extended from 27 minutes to between 31 and 37, admittedly with three new stops at Beauly, Muir of Ord and Conon Bridge. Dingwall has a half-hourly bus service taking 27 to 30 minutes via Conon Bridge.
During 2013 I made several journeys by rail, road and bus to Caithness and East Sutherland. I made three trips on bus service X99. This runs six times per day taking around 3 hours to Thurso and 2hr 50 min to Wick with a change at Dunbeath. On my summer trips on the 09.40 from Inverness there were 10 passengers north of Dornoch with 3 going forward to Thurso; the bus detours via Halkirk. More than 70% of passengers were travelling on concessionary travel cards. The rail journey to Wick takes 1½ hours longer than by bus. There are advantages on the train: catering, a decent loo, ability to walk about and wheelchair/bike space. Also, as an "old Fettesian" acquaintance used to say: "Gentlemen do not travel on buses," a sad but true observation that it is difficult to get travellers out of cars and onto buses but they are prepared to switch to trains. On my June car trip to Orkney, out from Scrabster and back from St Margaret's Hope, the ferries were packed. There is no shortage of summer tourist road traffic.
For completeness of information, Wick airport had 34,000 passengers in 2012. It is operated by Highlands & Islands Airports Limited, a company wholly-owned by the Scottish Government. Flight fees received by this body in 2012 were £12 million and the direct government subsidy £18million. There are daily flights to and from Wick serving Aberdeen and Edinburgh.
Any improvement of the prospects of the railway line will require capital expenditure at a time when budgets are being squeezed. Although the Network Rail budget, now controlled from Scotland, is £600 million, being at the end of a long investment pipeline it seems that only a few drops get through to the north. Previous undertakings, to have an annual relaying of 2 miles in the area of the Caithness/Sutherland border have not been followed through. Last summer, however, a stretch from Beauly to Lentran was replaced with continuously-welded rail. There are numerous opportunities for additional traffic. However, in the face of the seemingly increasing centralist view covering many aspects of society, these require local management with budget responsibility, authority and accountability. Invergordon now has cruise ship landings of 90,000 annually. Coach excursions by these visitors cost over £100 each, so there must be possibilities to develop a rail option. However, the difficulties of lack of suitable rolling stock, sidings, train paths, crewing and the initial financial risk means that this is unlikely in the short term, despite success in comparative places like Skagway, Alaska or Dunedin, New Zealand, where visitors from cruise ships travel on scenic railways. More positive news is the April trial of an overnight train from Aberdeen to Caithness conveying containers for delivery from Scrabster to oilrigs north-west of Shetland on behalf of ASCO (Aberdeen Service Company). This is a 2,000-employee worldwide company providing logistics backup to the oil industry. Rail saves about a day compared with sailing to and from Aberdeen. Scrabster would also be the closest point for sailings to Iceland & Faroe taking building materials north and fish south. Heavily subsidised sea services from Aberdeen to Orkney could be replaced by additions to container trains from Aberdeen. Caithness is not connected to the gas grid but there are local networks of gas supply in both Wick and Thurso. The CNG (compressed natural gas) supplied by road from Bristol Timber to Norboard at Dalcross is hampered by the lack of a siding there, the last 5 miles from Inverness to the factory adding perhaps 20% to the through rail cost.
The advent of online shopping has led to a significant increase in parcels traffic. There is opportunity to undercut the cost of the road deliveries as most goods originate more than 500 miles away. Smaller commercial consignments are delivered in one metre square wooden pallets of a nominal capacity of one tonne. The delivery cost of one of these from the central hubs in the Birmingham area will be more than £100 each to Caithness. There is opportunity significantly to undercut these rates. Cement deliveries to Orkney and Caithness are about 10,000 tonnes per annum. This currently comes by road from Inverness or Central Scotland, as do fertiliser and agricultural feedstuffs. Supermarket deliveries to Tesco, Co-op & Homebase add up to a further 3 containers a day.
Is there room for optimism? The long term trends are favourable to rail. Oil usage per head in China is one-tenth of the west and in India one-twentieth. Their respective populations are 1.4 and 1.2 billion. With increased difficulty and cost of extraction of oil, fuel prices can only increase. The development potential of the diesel engine has reached a plateau but the potential productivity increases of electric trains and Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) locomotives has barely been explored. Although significant improvements have been made to road safety over the years, the number of deaths on European roads is 30,000 per annum, plus 400,000 serious injuries. It seems only a matter of time until the authorities focus on this loss of life to reduce it by monitoring and automation.
So, whether it is carbon dioxide production, air pollution, road safely concerns and costs, damage to road infrastructure or relative productivity improvements, the long term trends are moving in favour of rail. In a purely commercial world, the FNL should not have survived the Beeching purge of the 1960s. Like much of the rail system, investment neglect of the past fifty years will have to be corrected to allow the line to Caithness to play an effective part in the economic development of the north of Scotland. As a nation, do we wish everyone to live in the south-east of England, or is it more sensible to ensure adequate connectivity in the north, thus preserving remoter communities? Funds are available: £39 million is being spent on new schools and a community centre for Wick; over £50 million is being spent on a new campus for the University of the Highlands and Islands in Inverness; and £5 million was spent on a new pier for the island of Eigg, with a population fewer than 100.
A £100 million 10-year plan for upgrading the FNL involving Network Rail, Highlands & Islands Enterprise, Local Authorities and the European Union should be developed. This would address items such as replacement with continuously-welded rail, additional passing loops, redoubling to Beauly, powered points as far as Tain, freight sidings, tourist rolling stock, Georgemas cut-off, etc.. The Far North Line of 2014 does not provide the vital lifeline as it did to previous generations. There is every sign that its resurrection to a more important place in the economy lies in the future. However in my view, this will eventually require the construction of the Dornoch link between Tain and Golspie. Only this will integrate Caithness and East Sutherland with the inner Moray Firth and make day travel by rail from Caithness to Inverness a realistic possibility and competitive with road journey times.
All views expressed are the author's own.