Some 40 years ago, the then chairman of British Rail, Peter Parker talked about the "crumbling edge of quality". On the railway; this was a time when received political wisdom, based on what was happening in North America was of the managed decline of railways as an obsolete mode of travel. In the Beeching and subsequent era promotion on the railway was related as is usual, to adherence of this party line. I recall a story regarding a slave to this doctrine pushing through the singling of the line from Keith to Aberdeen. His next objective was the singling of the line from Aberdeen to Dundee. Fortunately he moved on to higher things before this happened!
In Scotland the rail investment starvation regime of the last 50 plus years is most evident in the rural lines to the north of Inverness and the line from Ayr to Stranraer. The present situation on the North line of cancelled trains, late running and extended journey times is a disgraceful consequence of these years of neglect. Caithness is suffering from the run down of Dounreay nuclear establishment due to the policy changes of government but little consideration seems to be given as to the future of those 30,000 people who live there.
Connectivity is one of recent buzz words but rail journeys to Wick are two hours longer than corresponding ones by road. "Without vision the people perish". Where are the politicians like Tom Johnston the post war secretary of state who championed the rural electrification of the nation at nominal cost to the beneficiaries. Now electrical connections can be tens of thousands of pounds. We now seem to know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. In parallel, decisions are now made by command and control not by common sense of those who have served a proper apprenticeship on the ground. Presently we seem have a new toy to beat up the workforce; GPS.(Global Positioning System) Drivers it appears are currently being suspended awaiting disciplinary proceedings for minor infringements of speed limits and so trains are being cancelled.
Let's look at some of the economies made over the years in detail.
Much of the track to the north of Tain was last relaid in the winter of 1943 to cope with wartime traffic. Now it is life-expired but no doubt safe if treated kindly. The Friends have I understand, been encouraged in the past to believe a rolling programme of track relaying was underway. This was carried out on a three mile stretch on the Caithness/Sutherland border during one year (2008) and the line speed increased to 90mph. Class 47 locomotives have recently been banned from the Kyle line. The rail bridge at Culrain has a weight restriction causing the Lairg oil tanks to have to run less than 75% full.
The passing loops now remaining are insufficient to handle the present and any increase in traffic. The list of passing loops removed since the 1960s is as follows: Inverness (Clachnaharry) to Kirkhill (Clunes), six miles singled in the 1960s, leaving a loop at Lentran which was then removed after the closure of the aluminium smelter at Invergordon; Beauly, Conon Bridge, Foulis, Novar (Evanton) Alness, Kildary, Fearn Edderton, Culrain Acheilidh (east of Lairg) The Mound, Golspie, Kildonan, Kinbrace, Altnabreac, Scotscalder, Watten and Georgemas Junction (19 in total) leaving 10 extant namely Muir of Ord, Dingwall, Invergordon, Tain, Ardgay, Lairg, Rogart, Brora, Helmsdale and Forsinard. The removal at Georgemas necessary for the new lift facility for nuclear waste, means there is nowhere north of Forsinard to pass trains. With only single platforms at Thurso and Wick there is an understandable reluctance to allow excursions to run north of Dingwall. We urgently need additional loops at Lentran, Beauly, Evanton, Kildary, Kinbrace and Halkirk to provide a viable and reliable service.
As most readers will know, Victorian mechanical signalling was removed after a serious storm in 1978, to be replaced by electronic tokenless block and self acting hydraulic points. The signalling system which is 25 years old, gives trouble and is to be replaced by a digital equivalent. Trains will still have to come to a complete halt to pick up a token, wasting time and fuel. This system was not thought suitable for the new Waverley route which has full optical fibre data transmission and electrically powered points. Following a "mishap" some years ago a speed restriction of 15mph was imposed on all passing loops which has added up to 20 mins to journey times. We need a system appropriate for a strategic route not something far more suitable for the third world.
Although grateful for the new investment in level crossing gates we should remember that this was brought about not to assist rail travellers, but because of the present "blame culture", to protect reckless or inattentive road users. There are still numerous issues concerning crossings which require resolution. The most bizarre relates to that at Rovie where the ungated crossing, with lights, had a speed limit of 20mph. Following the introduction of gates the inspector from the ORR (Office of Rail Regulation) reduced the speed limit to 10mph despite this crossing being very lightly used.
It is clear in my mind that in any other West European country a project to reduce rail journey times by more than one hour to a community such as Caithness would have been completed long ago. This project would, along with those mentioned and others not detailed, reduce rail journey times from Inverness to Thurso to about 2hrs 45 mins, comparable with the time it takes to drive. How can we afford this at a time of financial stringency? This is an infrastructure investment which would pay off over 50 years. East Sutherland and Caithness would be better integrated into the Moray Firth economy. In the dash for decarbonisation the focus is on power supply with consumers paying an additional 20% on their fuel bills for the dubious pleasure of having windfarms in their community. Unsurprisingly politicians are reluctant to take any decisive action on road fuel consumption although this amounts to 30% of all national energy use. Despite hydrocarbons being a depleting and finite resource decision makers seem to be focussed on "bread and circuses" rather than taking a measured view of the future.
We live in a unitary state. Taxpayers surely are entitled to a broadly similar standard of public service wherever they live. This seems to be true for health and education but not for public transport.
FoFNL member, Les Turner, has spent the last two years travelling widely by rail throughout Europe and between Inverness and Caithness roughly monthly, sometimes using the bus for comparison.
These resulting opinions on the current state of the Far North Line are his own but may give all of us food for thought.