I have enjoyed reading the latest issue of the Far North Express (more impact if Snail is substituted for Express?) courtesy of Richard Ardern. It struck me as both informative and interesting and demonstrated an amazing knowledge of the detail of operations on the far North Line. Congratulations to all concerned.
It is many years since I had a brief acquaintance with the railways radiating from Inverness so you will perhaps understand my reluctance to comment on the current detailed operation of the Far North Route and rather confine myself to general issues.
There is a mention in the "Express" that the timetable needs to be constructed using a blank sheet of paper, untrammelled by what has happened in the past. I agree. But why stop at the timetable? Some further aspects which could be usefully examined from first principles might, I suggest, include the following:
The franchise itself. If the Caledonian Sleeper, comprised of a handful of trains, is worth a separate franchise why not the services north of Inverness? Maybe include the Aberdeen and Perth lines as well?
Should not such a franchise be of the vertical variety and include track and signalling?
Irrespective of the above, make a careful examination of the management of the services north of Inverness. It would often appear, especially when something goes wrong, that there is no effective local management. Appoint an energetic manager to run the route and give him, or her, the appropriate powers to do the job. That is exactly what BR did with no little success when the Settle - Carlisle line was in a similar state. The highly centralised ScotRail management system clearly does not work well in the Highlands.
Have a critical look at the rolling stock. Is there anything more suitable available? Would it make sense to have dedicated stock confined to the route and maintained at Inverness?
What about the track and signalling? Can it be improved and managed better, so as to reduce costs. Cost reduction is the most likely method of unlocking the investment necessary for improvement.
A warning. Beware the 'R' words such as resilience, reliability and realistic when applied to timetables. They are usually impressive euphemisms for slower journeys. If a service is having punctuality problems the easiest and time honoured solution is to extend the journey times. (Known to timetablers as 'Recovery' time. A similar principle to Sir Alex Ferguson's famed "Fergie time").
To turn now to the increasingly distant past. From April 1966 to January 1968, I spent a couple of the more pleasant years of my 40 year railway career in the Highland Lines Manager's office, located in the old Highland Railway's HQ at Station Square. This was very much an experimental organisation and, indeed, formed a template in some respects for the style of organisation adopted by BR in the 1980s. I have to confess, though, that my job was mainly concerned with tidying up the leftovers from the Beeching Reshaping proposals from which the Highlands escaped amazingly lightly. For this I make no apology as things could not have carried on as they were.
My first experience of the FNL was a visit to Alness to arrange the closure of the almost disused distillery private siding and being received in a splendid wood panelled office by Col H A C Mackenzie, the managing director, seated behind a suitably imposing desk. He made his opinion of BR very clear and I took myself off with my tail between my legs. It was the only distillery I ever visited where I was not offered a dram. Mind you, the siding was duly closed.
Then there was the occasion when I accompanied my boss, Jim McCall, on a two day expedition to the far north. At the time, 1966/67, the passenger service on the FNL consisted of the 6.10am, 10.30am and 5.00pm trains from Inverness and the corresponding Up departures from Wick, with journey times in excess of 4 hours. There were two goods trains each way taking 6 to 8 hours for the full journey and a couple of shorter trips to and from Invergordon and Lairg. In steam days one of the goods trains left Wick around the witching hour and took the rest of the night to reach Inverness. I think that was the train for which you could buy a first class ticket to travel in the discomfort of the brake van. In those days the line was operated pretty much in two sections south and north of Helmsdale with the shed there taking a major share of the workings.
But to my tale. We had an early start on the 6.10am from Inverness on which I seem to remember a buffet car. We certainly had a good breakfast from one source or another. The first visit was to Brora where we were welcomed by George Sim the stationmaster, who had been the last SM at Dornoch. He also had the great advantage of hailing from former Great North of Scotland territory so we discovered some mutual acquaintances. There was still evidence on the loading bank of the tramway from Brora colliery. Incidentally, coal was still being despatched by rail as late as 1966, and probably later, to the power station at Dundee.
We eventually reached Wick by the 10.30am ex-Inverness and after a discussion with the stationmaster and a look round the station, repaired to our accommodation in a modest B&B. BR expenses did not run to lavish living. The evening was spent in a local hall listening to the string section of the Scottish National Orchestra performing for the musical literati of Wick. Quite a contrast with the tales we had we had heard at Brora and Golspie of dinner jacketed gents from Dunrobin taking the Duke's engine out for a spin after a well lubricated dinner.
The next morning it was again up with the lark to get a lift on Permanent Way Inspector Morrison's trolley to Georgemas and Hoy. This contraption was a metal box mounted on two axles and powered by a Ford bus engine. The driver's position consisted of a seat and the usual gear lever, hand brake and foot pedals, but no steering wheel. Comfortable it was not, the suspension, if it existed, could not cope with the jolts at every rail joint, and the cold breezes of Caithness whistled through the holes in the floor which accommodated the controls.
On arrival at the Air Ministry private siding at Hoy we found an official entrance with a gate house surrounded by a neat garden and staffed by a security chap in a Ministry of Defence uniform. The siding served the fuel dump for RAF Wick, a World War 2 fighter base. The RAF had long since departed and there had been no traffic for years, but BR was still maintaining the connection, so we wanted rid of the siding. Keeping in mind BR's responsibilities for the defence of the realm we could not do that without the agreement of the appropriate Government department. After several months of letter writing agreement was eventually forthcoming, the siding duly closed and BR could stop wasting cash on maintaining the connection. My own feeling was that the place had been overlooked and forgotten, but it serves as a good illustration of the kind of thing the Beeching plan unearthed. It was not only the railways themselves on which taxpayers' money was being wasted.
The next port of call was Thurso to catch the 11.10am train for Altnabreac. The reason for the visit to Altnabreac was that the station was planned for conversion to an unstaffed halt, which proposal had been met by loud objections from the Hon. Robin Sinclair, the proprietor of the Loch Dhu Hotel. The Hon. Robin was trying to develop a sporting business at the hotel and we were meeting him to see if his objections could be overcome.
We were met at the station by the estate gamekeeper who took us to the hotel accompanied by the stationmaster, a chap from Glasgow who could not wait to be made redundant and return to his native streets. It seemed that his good lady had taken one look at the Caithness scenery and flatly refused to move to Altnabreac. He was left, therefore, camping on his lonesome in the station house.
At the Loch Dhu we were greeted by a young lady from, of all places, London, who introduced herself as the manager. A little later the Hon. Robin appeared accompanied by the sole teacher from the local school, together with two or three other people whose functions are lost in the mists of memory. It shortly became clear that what was worrying the Hon. Robin was the supply of shotgun cartridges for the gamekeeper and hotel guests. The cartridges were ordered from an establishment in Thurso and transported to Altnabreac by passenger train. It was easy to assure the Hon. Robin that it would be simple for the supplier to advise the hotel by phone as to which train the package had been despatched and it could then be collected directly from the guard at Altnabreac. Into my brain flashed memories of the regulations for the carriage of explosives by rail. These were particularly stringent in the case of passenger trains. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, I bit my tongue, reflecting that such rules were really for the stuff which caused big bangs and a few puny cartridges being carried the short distance from Thurso to Altnabreac posed no real risk.
Business completed, the Hon. Robin, obviously interested in railways, started a discussion about how the passenger service between Inverness and the Far North could be improved. I have an abiding memory of him, attired in kilt and what would be described in Aberdeenshire as a pair of muckle tackety boots, on his hands and knees on the tartan carpet demonstrating how the line should be operated. The tartan check made a good substitute for rails. It should be explained that the somewhat gloomy interior of the Loch Dhu was furnished in the best Balmoral style made popular by Queen Victoria. The whole affair deserved the pen of a Compton McKenzie to do it justice.
Since writing the above I have discovered that Altnabreac was converted to an unstaffed halt on 25th September 1966 which would most probably place the above episode in the spring or early summer of that year.
A trip to Kyle to see the stationmaster, Sam Hart, who looked after the ferry service to Kyleakin (no bridge then) as well as the station, was memorable for a glorious day. Travelling in the brake van to get an idea of the parcels traffic produced the bonus of a running commentary on features of interest, to say nothing of local gossip, from the Kyle guard who had taken over the train at Achnasheen. It was fascinating to see him fasten up some individual newspapers with string and toss them expertly and accurately from the open door into the back gardens of a row of houses which backed onto the line, near Plockton I think. The steamer to Stornoway, starting from Mallaig, had a lengthy lunch time call at Kyle. While having some lunch in the station refreshment room I observed a pair of officers from the ship arrive at the bar and dispose of what appeared to be most of a bottle of gin in an astonishingly short time. They were obviously regular customers.
The private sidings at Invergordon which served the defunct R N dockyard, the slaughterhouse and harbour area, provided a problem to which I was happy to turn a blind eye. My researches revealed that when the rail access was provided the Highland Railway Company had undertaken to maintain the sea wall on which the track was built "in perpetuity". What the outcome of that was I have no idea, but I am sure it will now be the province of the port authority.
The recently enacted Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act had, for the first time, brought railway premises and staff accommodation within the realm of HM Factories Inspectorate. Some enterprising railway staff, perhaps briefed by their trade unions, started reporting deficiencies in their places of work to their local Factory Inspectors. A signalman at Fearn had made a complaint about conditions there and the result was an enforcement order against BR with a time limit within which to comply. Conditions there were truly grim, especially the awful lavatories, and BR had no option but to get on with it.
My final memory, and in many respects my best, concerns Forsinard. There I met Mr Mohammed Ayub, the stationmaster. The station house was part of the station building and it was not unusual for pasengers in trains to be jerked from their somnolence by the sight of Mrs Ayub in traditional dress. Mohammed was an immigrant from Pakistan and told me that the surroundings at Forsinard were just like his home village. He also assured me that he looked after the station just as if it were his own shop. I am sure he did just that.
I cannot now recall quite how, but I was able to assist Mohammed in some way and he would ring me up when he needed advice on railway matters, or just to have a chat. His wife did not share his liking for Forsinard; I believe she was a native of Dundee which had a long standing Pakistani population attracted by the jute factories. Mohammed eventually got a job on the Southern region and when passing through Inverness on his way south very kindly presented me with a carefully wrapped haunch of venison. I presented it in turn to Mrs Scott, my landlady, who was delighted. My fellow railway lodger, Eric Winton, and I feasted on venison for several days.
My time at Inverness came to an end when it became clear that the managerial organisation there had served its purpose, as indeed had I. My next step was to the Eastern Region HQ at York. This was located in the magnificent former North Eastern Railway Company's office building just inside the city walls and adjacent to the original George Hudson terminal station. A greater contrast with the homely atmosphere of Inverness would be hard to imagine, but that is another story altogether.