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The Friends of the Far North Line
Cairdean Na Loine Tuath
the campaign group for rail north of Inverness - lobbying for improved services for the local user, tourist and freight operator

Letter to The Editor

7th October 2006

Dear Friends,

I am writing with regard to the views about the "hopelessly uneconomic" Dornoch Link as recently expressed by Mike Lunan and reported in the Caithness Courier (06-09-06) and repeated in the John o'Groat Journal letters page (15-09-06) and in more detail in the FoFNL September 2006 newsletter. The response to that is given below.

We fully support the efforts by FoFNL to improve the rolling stock although we feel that efforts to procure a new "rural" train would be difficult, so efforts should be made to refurbishing existing rolling stock. We also support efforts to shorten journey times by improving line speeds, passing loops, level crossings etc. on the existing line, although the layout and topography of the Far North Line limit the scope for this.

Nevertheless, we are disappointed that FoFNL has decided that the Dornoch Link is "hopelessly uneconomic" and is not worth pursuing. This is a point of view we vigorously and emphatically disagree with, particularly as the train journey from Caithness southwards is far too long and will not help efforts up here to regenerate the economy after Dounreay shuts. Good local economies are dependent on good rail as well as road links, and we do not have a good rail link up here.

It should be recognised that the northern end of the Line has the densest population in the North Highlands north of Inverness, and this is reflected in the fact that the stations with the highest use, apart from Dingwall, are in Thurso and Wick. This is reinforced in that up to 80% of the passengers who use the Far North Line do so to and from Caithness. This fact, and the increasing use of the line for freight to this area, reinforce the case for large scale strategic expenditure on the Line to shorten journey times from Caithness and north/east Sutherland southwards, and rebuts the Pareto principle discussed in the November 2005 AGM.

Many people in Caithness, who I know and respect, have told me that the principle factor dissuading them from using the Far North Line is the time it takes to go by train from Caithness to Inverness compared to the car or even bus. Some of these people may use the train from Inverness to Glasgow/ Edinburgh, Aberdeen or London, but will drive to Inverness from Caithness for this reason. Small scale improvements as outlined on Pages 4 and 5 of the newsletter, while welcome, will not change this view in the long term, particularly in view of the ongoing A9 improvements, and irrespective of any improvements made from Inverness southwards or eastwards. The line in its current form will not help efforts to develop the Far North economy or encourage environmentally sustainable forms of transport. Many people, some of whom are members of FoFNL, are also disappointed and disenchanted with the stance taken by FoFNL regarding the Dornoch Link in this response to the Room for Growth study, and have made it clear to me and others that the position taken by the Committee is by no means shared or agreed on. This stance is at variance with previously expressed statements by the Convener regarding the necessity of a full independent feasibility study for Far North Line improvements, including the Dornoch Link. Our position on the Link, and the reasons why it should come about, are quite clear and we absolutely stand by them. I should add personally that I am coming under increasing pressure from a lot of people to set up our own organisation, separate from FoFNL, dedicated to pursuing strategic improvements to the Line with the Dornoch scheme as its central plank.

I understand from your letter to the John o'Groat Journal of the 15th September that the FoFNL Committee will not support the proposal from Corus to investigate an alternative route delineation and line costing for the Dornoch Link, as I requested earlier on this year. I will of course respect any decision the Committee makes on that request, but I would nevertheless have appreciated it if the Committee informed me personally rather than leaving me to find this out in the Press with no prior communication from the Committee. This has disappointed me.

We have therefore decided that we will pursue the Corus proposal by ourselves if necessary, and we have the resources to do so. Our Action Group will be formalised in due course. We feel that the Corus study will generate an independently researched and costed alternative, more cost-effective, simpler and more user-friendly Dornoch scheme than was originally proposed under British Rail in 1985 and revisited in the Scott Wilson and Halcrow reports. We also feel that this will be a crucial lobbying tool in helping secure a Far North Line which can meet the needs of the Far North more fully than it is currently capable of doing, and will form a necessary part of any feasibility study for Line improvements.

No hard feelings are intended, but our position needs to be made quite clear on this issue.

Yours sincerely,

Mark W. Norton, member 413 and Dornoch Rail Link Action Group Co-ordinator
Seaview Cottage