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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

Steam In The North - 1998

Highland Railway Heritage got off to a promising start last year. Running a series of steam trips in October was an ambitious first venture, but costs were (just) covered and meanwhile a good crowd of travellers went home content and more than happy, which is what counts at the end of the day.

The first train, from Edinburgh to Inverness, was less well filled than hoped, but it was an experience to steam across the Forth Bridge and take the Dunfermline route to Perth, and energetic climbs were made over Drumochter and Slochd. On this, as indeed on all the trips, we were accompanied by a cavalcade of photographers in their cars: the old A9 was quite busy in places. It is a pity one sees so few of their results in print.

There were a good deal of spare seats too on the next day's return trip to Kyle of Lochalsh. Maybe this was thought to be too soon after the two trips last year, particularly as the advertised BR standard locomotive was the same as then, as it happened, and maybe took many onlookers by surprise, this had been failed just prior to the trips and Stanier 8F 2-8-0 48151 took its place. Very grandly too, a type of engine that thrives on hard work, for which there is a good deal of call this side of Perth. A fine drizzle made the climb past Raven Crag very tricky on the outward run, and great skill was exercised in controlling the slipping. Running tender first the constantly winding section along Loch Carron was taken with some caution. At Kyle the weather improved, and we had a very stimulating return run.

Predictably the train to Wick and Thurso booked up very rapidly - it was the first steam hauled passenger train to reach there for more than 30 years (one steam train did venture north several years earlier, but only as far as Helmsdale), and people booked from all over the kingdom. There was some delay at Muir of Ord to deal with a clack valve problem, and watering at Forsinard occupied far longer than expected (to pass a service train south and forbidden to reverse a passenger train, a very long hose had to be used which caused a severe drop in pressure), which irredeemably lost us our path, so arrival in Wick was very late, and in Thurso even later. But at both the pipers had gallantly stood their ground, and gave us a rousing welcome.

Developing valve trouble had added to our delays that evening, and in the morning this had to be overcome. This ruled out our intended shuttle service between Wick and Thurso. Alternative arrangements were rapidly made, however, and we managed to give the crowds of local parents and children as good a steam run as possible. Thurso passengers returned by bus from Wick or Georgemas, and those from Wick were returned by bus from Helmsdale. At times that morning the train was crowded enough to remind one of the London Underground in the rush hour but, seeing our problems, passengers entered into the spirit of the thing and took it all in surprisingly good part. That day Scotland lived up to its trick of offering all four seasons in one day, but much of the excellent run south to Inverness was in good weather and greatly enjoyed. At least, being a Sunday, we ran no risk that day of fouling up the normal services!

The final trip from Inverness to Polmont - for Edinburgh by service train - was also poorly filled. (With hindsight, it might have booked better had it been run on the Monday after the Far North weekend, so those not going south on the Sunday evening could have come with us. One of our lessons.) The climb to Culloden was brisk, but thereafter speed fell off to a crawl - believed to have been due to a locomotive on the incoming sleeper leaking oil earlier that morning. Arrival at Aviemore was thus too late to permit passengers a return run on the Speyside Railway, as intended, while we took water. A good sustained ascent of Drumochter, was followed by some very laboured work just south of Killiecrankie tunnel and again on the ascent from Dunkeld to Kingswood tunnel, both because of damp rail conditions and leaf fall. The stop at Perth was very protracted and there was signalling trouble at Hilton junction, so arrival in Stirling was badly down. From there, however, we enjoyed a splendid run to Polmont. Good clear track and, one suspects, a change of driver!

On the Kyle and Far North runs it was particularly good to see so many folk at the stations to watch us pass and wish us well. Also we thank all those who let us take them, in the nicest possible way, for a ride. Both forms of support made the whole exercise well worthwhile.

Keith Tyler