scotland (4K)
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

Far North Line Past, Present and Future

by Gordon Pettitt

Part 1 - History and New Challenges

Historical Background

The single line railway from Inverness to Thurso (153.84 miles) and Wick (161.4 miles) was opened in stages between 1862 and 1874, but by 1884 all the original companies had been taken over by the Highland Railway, which continued to operate the line until amalgamation with the LMS in 1923.

The Far North Line (FNL) is the longest single line railway in the UK; double track was installed over the 5.5 miles between Clachnaharry and Clunes in 1914 to handle increased traffic during the First World War but was singled again by BR in the 1960's.

The influence of the 3rd Duke of Sutherland (1828-1892) over the financing and routing of FNL cannot be underestimated. Prior to acceding to the title he was MP for Sutherland from 1852 to 1861, was a founding board member of the Highland Railway and contributed significant finance and land to building the railway north of Dingwall. Without the support and influence of the Duke it is unlikely that any railways would have been built beyond Dingwall at the time or, indeed, since.

The circuitous route of the railway beyond Bonar Bridge (Ardgay) to Thurso and Wick was designed to bring improved communications to as large an area as possible within the Counties of Sutherland and Caithness where the Duke owned extensive estates. He had little or no interest in the coastal communities or the benefits of providing a more direct route to Wick, the Capital of Caithness. The route chosen in the 1850's is one of the greatest disadvantages faced in making greater use of the FNL today.

On completion the FNL had a number of branch lines, including Dingwall to Kyle of Lochalsh (opened to Strome Ferry in 1870 and finally to Kyle in 1897). However, with this exception the remainder had all closed by 1971 through lack of traffic and competition:

Inverness Harbour, 1867 Invergordon Harbour, 1971 Muirtown Basin (Inverness), 1969 The Mound to Dornoch, 1960 Muir of Ord to Fortrose, 1960 Wick to Lybster, 1944

For similar reasons twenty-two of the original forty-seven stations had been closed by 1960. A further four stations were closed following publication of the Beeching Report (The Reshaping of British Railways, published in 1963). The fact that the line survived total closure at this time is explained by the following extract from the report under the sub-heading of "Hardship".

With the exception of Northern Scotland, and parts of Central Wales, most areas of the country are already served by a network of buses denser than the network of rail services that will be withdrawn. . . .

In short the remoteness of the area and the lack of alternative bus services at the time saved the line, when many others in Scotland with greater traffic levels and potential were closed. As will be seen later the road and bus network covering the FNL catchment area has changed significantly since 1960 but the rail network has remained largely unaltered.

In more recent times the greatest threat to the future of the line occurred in February 1989 when flood waters washed away the bridge carrying the railway over the River Ness just outside Inverness. Agreement to rebuild the bridge was announced on the same day as the collapse and a new bridge was opened 15 months later in May 1990. During the intervening period trains terminated at Dingwall and passengers were carried to and from Inverness by road.

Road improvements between Inverness and Thurso and Wick

The biggest threat to the long-term future of the FNL today is the significant investment in road improvements and in particular the opening of road bridges across the Beauly Firth (1982), Cromarty Firth (1982) and Dornoch Firth (1991). These improvements have significantly reduced the distance from Inverness to the communities served by the railway as the following table shows.

Comparison of Rail and Road Distances from Inverness to key points on the Far North Line

Distance in Miles from Inverness
  Rail Road
Dingwall 19 15
Invergordon 31 24
Tain 44 34
Lairg 67 48
Helmsdale 101 68
Thurso 154 110
Wick 174(1) 103
(1) Distance via Thurso incurred on a rail journey

It will be seen that the advantages of the improved road network increases the further north you travel. The distance by road from Inverness to Thurso is now 44 miles less than by rail and to Wick 71 miles.

The differences in distance have a very significant effect, not only on journey times, but also in providing substantially lower costs for bus operators, freight operators and owners of private cars.

The difference in journey times between Inverness and the destinations shown above are set out below.

Comparison of average Rail, Bus and Car journey times from Inverness to key points on the Far North Line

  Rail Bus Car
Dingwall 0:30 0:27 0:24
Invergordon 0:50 0:50 0:35
Tain 1:08 0:50 0:46
Lairg 1:43   1:11
Helmsdale 2:35 1:48 1:29
Thurso 3:49 3:05 2:26
Wick 4:20(1) 2:51(2) 2:19
(1) Via Thurso (2) change at Dunbeath
Bus and rail times based on Summer 2011

Whilst the shorter journey times by bus give a significant advantage over rail, the greater frequency of the buses is probably a more decisive factor in modal choice. For instance, there are 28 buses a day to and from Inverness serving the communities between Conon Bridge and Invergordon. Further north Wick and Thurso have 6 buses to and from Inverness on weekdays and 4 on Sundays compared with 4 trains on weekdays and 1 on Sundays.

The differences between the car and train journey times are so great, that the railway must seem a total irrelevance to the majority of car owners in Sutherland and Caithness.

Not surprisingly the bus now also has journey time advantages over rail for journeys to and from the Orkney Islands as the following table shows. In addition the bus goes direct to and from the ferry berth at Scrabster. (Passengers intending to use rail must book a taxi - paid for by ScotRail - to travel between the ferry terminal and Thurso station.)

Stromness   dep. 06:30 11:00 16:45
Inverness by bus arr. 11:43 16:43 22:03
  by train arr. 12:13 16:48 no service
Inverness by train dep. 07:06 13:59  
  by bus   09:40 14:40  
Stromness   arr. 14:45 20:30  

The average of the journey times between Inverness and Stromness gives the bus an advantage over the train of one and a half hours. The difference in the opposite direction is less due to a 55-minute bus connection for the 11:00 from Stromness.

In part 2, I will set out the considerable improvements in the rail service since introduction of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and the appointment of First Group as the operator of ScotRail in 2004.