As we leave the "noughties" and enter the "teens", it is perhaps, a time to look back as well as forward. Ten years ago, there was but one train arriving at Inverness before 09.30. That started from Dingwall. On its first day in September, 1998, it carried just ten passengers, calling at the only intermediate station open at the time, Muir of Ord. There were three trains a day running between Inverness and Wick and between Inverness and Kyle of Lochalsh.
Today, there are three trains arriving before 09.00, carrying over 250 passengers, most of whom are regular commuters. They call at the two intermediate stations - soon, we hope, to be joined by a third - and there are four trains throughout in each direction on both the Far North and Kyle lines. The number of passengers being carried is now such that one of the trains may soon need to be four cars long. Indeed, following pressure from the Friends of the Far North Line, the 06.20 Wick to Inverness was strengthened to four cars on the Saturdays leading up to Christmas. No longer are the railways north of Inverness "just for a few tourists".
The forthcoming partial closures of Kessock and Cromarty bridges are opportunities to increase patronage further but this will only succeed if the railway industry "gets it right". The trains must be reliable; the infrastructure must be reliable. Inverness is not a major conurbation in which there is no realistic alternative to the train for commuters. In Glasgow, in London, in Birmingham, passengers may put up with regular delays and cancellations because they know that to use other transport modes is unrealistic. In Inverness, they will revert to the A9 and the A862.
In my last Headcode, I touched on the possibility of there being a fifth or even sixth Far North Line passenger train. In this edition of the magazine, we are looking at freight by including our response to Transport Scotland's Developing rail freight policy in Scotland. Sadly, we can't actually include TS's original document as it runs to 23 pages. Freight is a major opportunity for the line but, as the infrastructure stands at the moment, there is very little capacity for it. The long single line section between Inverness and Muir of Ord is a major obstacle to freight (and to any further increase in passenger services). FoFNL therefore presses all those professionally involved in the railway industry - Transport Scotland, Network Rail, First ScotRail, freight operating companies - to address urgently the reinstatement of all or part of the former double-track section of line between Clachnaharry and Clunes. Also, the constant speed restrictions for level crossings eat into line capacity and need to be dealt with. Without these, rail cannot be a part of the regeneration of the far north of Scotland.
This sounds pessimistic but it shouldn't be. It should be a time of great optimism and, if the industry grasps the nettle, it will be.