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 2 - Rail Service Improvements

In part 1, I reviewed the history of the Far North Line and outlined the very significant road improvements which took place between 1982 and 1991 and the effect these had in reducing distances and journey times by road compared with rail. Whilst the Far North Line had lost its traditional traffic over a period of many years for a variety of reasons, the building of a shorter and faster road route was the most serious threat to its existence since opening in 1874. However, despite these disadvantages there have been significant improvements to train services, particularly following reestablishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and the appointment of First Group as the operator of ScotRail in 2004.

Higher-powered Class 158 trains replaced the Class 156s in 2000; Beauly station was reopened in 2002; additional trains under the Invernet brand were introduced in 2005; and a fourth train from Wick to Inverness was added in 2006, followed by one in the opposite direction in 2008. As a result of these initiatives, train miles (including empty miles) in the current timetable are 74% higher than operated by British Rail (BR) in 1992. The investment in additional staff and rolling stock for this increase was a very bold initiative intended to bring about a step change in use of the line. The current construction of a new station at Conon Bridge at a cost of some £600,000 is a further vote of confidence in the future of the line as a commuter railway to Inverness.

Despite these significant investments, the greatest weakness of the line remains in that journey times are just not competitive with the buses, let alone cars, which the majority of travellers use. The route taken by the railway referred to in part 1, and the time taken for frequent stops, are particular problems the further north passengers wish to travel.

In the last few years, first 20 and then another 5 minutes has been added to the schedules between Inverness and Thurso as a result of lower speed restrictions being imposed at locations where accidents involving road vehicles occurred at "open" level crossings and over points entering and leaving the passing loops. In the case of Wick, the additional journey time is around a further 24 minutes owing to the elimination of the shuttle from Georgemas Junction in 1995 and the diversion of trains into and out of Thurso.

The speed restrictions at level crossings and loops are long-standing and arise from introduction of the Radio Electronic Token Block (RETB) signalling system by British Rail in the 1980s. Automatic Open Level Crossings Locally Monitored (AOCL) were introduced as part of this scheme. However, it must be remembered that without such initiatives to reduce costs, it is unlikely that the line would still be open today.

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 AOCLs and the entry/exit to and from passing loops. The multi-million pound costs revealed by both reports made it clear that the journey-time savings identified were totally insufficient to justify the costs involved as the number of passengers likely to benefit would be low and there would be no measurable impact on the significant difference between road and rail journey times.

Passenger Traffic on the FNL today

In line with the rest of the United Kingdom, the number of passengers using the line has increased in recent years whilst costs have increased at a faster rate. Using data published by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), reprinted in FNE 50, 53 and 56, the number of passengers joining and alighting from stations between Beauly and Thurso/Wick in the past four years (2006/7 - 2010/11) has increased by 54%. However, as will be seen later, the majority of this comes from passengers using stations nearest to Inverness. This increase in passengers is impressive in isolation, but must be seen in the context of the low base and the 74% increase in train miles since 1992. Details of the use of all the stations can be seen in the editions of FNE already referred to.

The 10 most heavily used stations during the last financial year 2010/11 were:

  No. of passengers joining and alighting Average no. of passengers per week
Dingwall 84,920 1,633
Muir of Ord 62,428 1,200
Beauly 49,858 959
Thurso 48,172 926
Tain 26,944 578
Wick 25,616 493
Invergordon 23,444 450
Alness 17,782 342
Golspie 9,082 175
Ardgay 7,404 142

It will be noted that 6 out of the 10 most heavily used stations are within 44 miles of Inverness. This section of the line accounts for just over 70% of all the passengers joining and alighting from stations on the whole route.

In contrast to the relative success of the stations within commuting distance of Inverness, 10 of the 17 stations on the 130 miles of railway north of Tain are used by fewer than 35 passengers per week. At most of these, the cost of making the stop is greater than the revenue gained from the occasional user.

Culrain 33
Invershin 10
Rogart 28
Dunrobin Castle 11
Kildonan 3
Kinbrace 9
Forsinard 34
Altnabreac 3
Scotscalder 5
Georgemas Jn 31

During a visit to Inverness in August, 2011, I was able to gain a personal insight into the very low patronage of the majority of trains. I recorded the number of passengers on the trains that I saw or travelled on and the results are listed below:

Monday, 1st August, 2011. Observations at Inverness
20.44 from Ardgay arrived right time; 15 passengers alighted.
21.09 to Tain departed with 1 passenger. (This is highly unusual. The normal load of this train is between 10 and 20 - Ed.)

Tuesday, 2nd August, 2011. Observations at Inverness, Dingwall and Invergordon
10.38 Inverness to Wick departed right time with 27 passengers.
12.16 Inverness to Dingwall departed right time with 33 passengers.
12.54 Dingwall to Inverness departed 1 minute late with 7 passengers.
14.39 Inverness to Invergordon: 5 passengers alighted in Dingwall and 7 alighted in Invergordon where it arrived 1 minute before time.
15.38 Invergordon to Inverness departed with 4 passengers.
16.48 from Wick arrived in Inverness on time with 31 passengers.
17.06 from Kyle arrived in Inverness 3 minutes late with 33 passengers.
17.15 Inverness to Ardgay departed right time with 124 passengers.
17.54 Inverness to Kyle/Wick departed right time with 190 passengers.

Wednesday, 3rd August, 2011. Observations at Inverness
07.06 to Wick departed right time with 19 passengers.
07.48 from Ardgay arrived right time with 35 passengers.
08.12 from Lairg right time with 69 passengers.
08.53 from Kyle 4 minutes early with 65 passengers.
09.00 to Kyle departed right time with 41 passengers.
10.35 from Wick arrived right time with 88 passengers.

Reports of overcrowding on a particular train or day appear from time to time in FNE but it is clear from the annual data published by the ORR already referred to and from my own observations that the most pressing problem is to bring about a significant increase in passengers on a year-round basis.

It seems that the only significant problem with regular overcrowding is over the short section between Inverness and Dingwall. The item by Frank Roach in the May 2011 issue of the newsletter regarding the loading of the 17.15 to Ardgay illustrates the limited extent of the problem. Whilst the train left Inverness with 139 passengers, 70 alighted at Beauly and Muir of Ord and it left Dingwall with only 56 of the original passengers on board. I have no doubt that a similar position arises in the opposite direction with the 08.53 arrival from Kyle.

On my last two visits to the FNL I have been impressed by the improved cleanliness, punctuality and reliability of the trains. The smart and neatly-dressed staff, together with the clean and graffiti free stations, add up to a well-run railway, which is a credit to the standards set by Transport Scotland and the delivery by First ScotRail. It was, however, a disappointment to experience the poor loading of the majority of trains and to find no publicity about the line at Glasgow, Edinburgh or Inverness stations nor in any of the hotels in Inverness.

My thoughts on options for bringing about improvements in revenue, reducing costs and overcoming the limited overcrowding will be covered in Part 3 in the next issue.

Gordon Pettitt is a former Managing Director of Regional Railways and is a member of the Friends of the Far North Line.

(Editor's note: The ORR figures need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Several commentators in various parts of the country have questioned their accuracy as they do not accord with personal observations in a number of cases.)