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 3 - Planning for the Future

In part 1 I reviewed the history of the Far North Line (FNL) and showed how significant improvements to the roads between Inverness and Wick between 1982 and 1991 had significantly reduced distances and journey times by bus and car, compared with the train. This is still the most serious threat to the future of the FNL since it opened in 1874.

Part 2 highlighted rail service improvements since 2004 and pointed out that train miles in the 2012 timetable were 74% higher than operated by BR in 1992.

In this issue, I look at the subsequent trends in passenger numbers on the route and identify some longer term options for the future. The service improvements since 2004 have had a significant effect on the use of the FNL over the 44 miles between Inverness and Tain. The table below compares the numbers of passengers joining and alighting over the last five years. Perhaps for the first time in history, or at least since the first world war, there are now three stations with over 1,000 passengers a week. The figures are as published by the Office of Rail Regulation.

  2006/07 2011/12 % growth Average no. of passengers
joining and alighting per week
in 2011/12
Beauly 35,860 54,454 51.8 1,047
Muir of Ord 32,573 74,462 128.6 1,431
Dingwall 55,034 101,730 84.8 1,956
Alness 9,822 25,496 159.5 490
Invergordon 12,949 34,566 166.9 664
Fearn 6,069 7,818 28.8 150
Tain 18,521 33,638 81.6 647
Total 170,828 332,164 94.4  

Unfortunately, the growth over this part of the route is not matched by stations on the remaining 130 miles between Tain and Wick. Despite an average growth of 44% on this section over the last five years, the average number of passengers per train on leaving Tain is 44, reducing to fewer than 10 between Thurso and Wick. This is not the level of traffic needed to sustain a service of four trains a day in each direction and certainly not all the year round.

The growth figures highlight the dilemma of the FNL for Transport Scotland (TS), infrastructure providers, operators and indeed the Friends of the Far North Line. The first 25% of the route is used by more than 74% of the passengers, but the remaining 75% of the route is used by just 26% of the passengers. Figures for the last five years suggest this trend will continue for reasons set out below.

It is clearly good news that more passengers can be attracted to the FNL between Inverness and Tain. But it has to be accepted that that up to now, the vast majority of customers use the first four arrivals in Inverness from the north plus the 17.15 and 17.54 departures on return. This evidence is quite clear from the loadings I referred to in Part 2 and the regular reports submitted by FoFNL committee members. The current use of the line between Inverness and Tain clearly suggests that this section should be regarded as the core business of the FNL and therefore be the priority for investment, resources and timetable development.

It is unlikely, given such low load factors on a majority of trains, that extra resources can be allocated to the FNL in the near future. The challenge is to make better use of existing resources to encourage further growth over the core section. This is best done by a total recast of the current timetable which I suggest should be based around the following principles:

  1. The core business of the FNL in the foreseeable future is between Inverness and Tain and current resources need to be rebalanced to reduce overcrowding on some trains and encourage further growth.
  2. Maximise the use of existing line capacity between Inverness and Tain by using train and crew resources to provide more capacity in the peak periods (in particular the evening) and reduce the long gaps in service (e.g., between 14.42 and 17.15 from Inverness).
  3. The first trains from Inverness to Wick and Kyle to be retimed and formed of trains that have already completed at least one inbound peak hour journey.
  4. Introduction of regular interval pathways between Inverness and Dingwall and between Dingwall and Tain between the hours of 06.30 and 21.00 using the existing loops at Muir of Ord, Dingwall and Invergordon. If possible, these should be standard pathways that can be used in off peak periods by Diesel Multiple Units, Freight and Charters.
  5. Review the level of service needed in winter and summer west of Dingwall to Kyle of Lochalsh and north of Tain to Thurso and Wick and path the services needed to be part of the proposed interval pattern in 4 above.

The longer term Inverness to Tain

In the longer term, and linked to plans for track, signalling and level crossing renewal projects, the aim must be to improve the journey times over the core section between Inverness and Tain. The basic alignment over this section is already good with 60/75 mph line speeds permitted over 90% of the distance. Future track and signalling renewals and modernisation of the crossings at Bunchrew and Delny will make it possible to reduce the journey time between Inverness and Tain from 68 minutes today to around 50/55 minutes. There may also be an opportunity to raise the current 10 mph speed restriction over Clachnaharry swing bridge when it needs major repairs or renewal.

With the exception of Beauly and Conon Bridge, platforms are long enough for the two coach trains of today to be increased to at least six. The faster journeys times combined with longer trains will reduce the resources needed but increase peak hour capacity on the single line from 375 seats in the current timetable to at least 1,000.

The longer term Tain to Thurso and Wick

Whilst there has been a 40% growth over the last five years, the average train loads remain at the level of buses rather than a railway for most of the year. Journey times are long and not competitive with bus let alone car travel, primarily owing to the investment in direct road links between 1979 and 1991.

The Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership (HITRANS) commissioned two major reports from consultants to assess the work and costs involved to improve line speeds at Automatic Open Crossings Locally Monitored (AOCLs) and the access/egress to and from passing loops. The high costs revealed by both reports make it clear that the journey time savings identified were totally insufficient to justify the costs involved for the number of passengers likely to benefit. I agree with this finding because there would be no measurable impact on the rail journey times that would encourage people to transfer to the train.

The branch lines from Dingwall to Kyle of Lochalsh and the West Highland lines to Oban, Fort William and Mallaig all face similar problems to those outlined. The main difference is that they all have greater tourist potential. Together, these lines total up to 450 miles out of the 1,739 mile network in Scotland and represent a significant cost to the taxpayer which is out of all proportion to any economic or social value.

So, looking to the future, I am encouraged by the thinking set out in TS's consultation paper Rail 2014 which raises some fundamental questions about the procuring of rail passenger services and refers to the differences between economic and social models. It is also significant that Network Rail's Initial Industry Plan 2011 (IIP) supports greater collaboration between Network Rail (NR) and train operators. It makes some important points:

  1. All parties must develop aligned and suitably incentivised relationships that optimise the provision and management of infrastructure and train delivery.
  2. The analysis carried out for IIP demonstrates that affordability in Scotland is dominated by industry cost more than revenue.
  3. Much of the rural network demonstrates strong seasonality in demand patterns and affordability.

These points have been noted by the Scottish Government in recently announced plans for the future of Scotland's rail network, which includes the requirement for the next ScotRail franchisee and NR to work together to develop a "deeper alliance". This, together with the fact that the current ScotRail Franchise is due for renewal in April 2015 (the Invitation to Tender for bidders is due to be issued in the summer of this year), means that a real opportunity opens up for developing new and innovative solutions for operating and maintaining lines and also increasing revenue.

I hope that the Friends of the Far North Line will welcome these developments and perhaps ask that a small team of highly motivated young engineers and operators (not consultants) with a track record of innovation be given the opportunity of finding practical ways of saving such lines as earlier generations did with Radio Electronic Token Block, etc.

Gordon Pettitt is the former Managing Director of Regional Railways.