Next month FoFNL marks the twentieth anniversary of our seminal conference in Inverness. The conference concerned the future of the Far North Line and was organised by the then FoFNL Secretary, Frank Roach.
The event was extremely successful and from it sprang the Highland Rail Partnership bringing together local authorities and the rail industry. This group was eventually subsumed into the Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership, HITRANS, for whom Frank holds the position of Partnership Manager on the Executive team. A report of the conference by John Allison of the Highland Railway Society was published in their journal in 1996 and is reproduced here. Although much has been achieved in those twenty years some of the fundamental problems of the Far North Line remain and feature very prominently in this issue of FNE.
While much doom and gloom surrounds the 'privatisation' of British Rail it was extremely heartening to spend a day discussing, in a very positive way, the future development of one of Britain's most scenic routes - the Far North Line.
Speakers at the conference included Robert Maclennan MP, President of the Friends of the Far North Line, Julian Worth, Transrail, and John Ellis, ScotRail. Brian Wilson MP, Shadow Spokesman on Transport, was also due to speak but unfortunately Parliamentary business prevented him from attending. Such was the importance he attached to the conference that his speech was delivered on his behalf by conference organiser Frank Roach, Secretary of the Friends of the Far North Line. Frank is due. and on the day received. much praise for drawing together nearly 120 people who have an interest in the railways in the Highlands and the Far North Line in particular and for establishing a most impressive list of speakers.
Some of the key commitments given were as follows :
ScotRail proposes to introduce, in the next summer's timetable and earlier if possible, a commuter train leaving Tain at approximately 7.30am and arriving in Inverness at around 8.30am using an existing two car Class 156 unit between turns. With the last train north now returned to a 17.15 departure from Inverness it will, for the first time for many years, be possible to commute to Inverness by train for people living in the rapidly expanding travel to work area for Inverness. ScotRail will attempt to achieve a three hour journey time from Wick to Inverness by a programme of running line improvements and a careful inspection of speed limits on the line. Many of the speed limits have not been reassessed since the introduction of Sprinter stock and still apply to locomotive hauled trains. This proposal will require considerable capital investment and ScotRail is looking for partners to contribute. Highlands & Islands Enterprise (the replacement for the Highlands & Islands Development Board) immediately committed themselves to 50% of the cost of an estimated £25,000 engineering survey of the line.
Julian Worth of Transrail referred to the success of the first freight train for 15 years on the line. This had carried rolled steel for Norfrost Freezers and domestic coal north and had returned with scrap metal and manufactured freezer cabinets for export to America. The next train is due on 9 November with a similar load but will drop off wagons at Lairg to be loaded with marble from Ledmore quarry. This will be picked up by the returning train the following day. The marble is of world class quality and is bound, via the Channel Tunnel, for Italy for cutting and finishing. Apparently the skills to finish the stone do not exist, at present, in this country but it is hoped these will be developed. The manager of the quarry indicated that Transrail was the only method of transport which could get the stone to Italy at an economic cost to compete with Italian Carrera marble and hoped that his quarry was setting an example to others.
The second freight train on 9 November will experimentally carry a wagon loaded with 30 metre steel pipes for the Rockwater Pipe yard north of Wick. At present the pipes are carried by road and are the bane of all motorists especially on the Berriedale Braes north of Helmsdale where they have become stuck.
Transrail is negotiating with Railtrack to stop freight trains overnight on the running line to allow timber to be loaded direct from the line side forests and therefore cutting out transshipment costs.
John Ellis of ScotRail explained that ScotRail had no intention of taking any steps to resurrect the Dornoch Firth Rail Crossing because of the need to persuade Railtrack, among others, to make the investment. He was convinced that for a great deal less investment many other improvements could be made to the line. These would help to achieve the ultimate aim of a three hour journey time while at the same time preserving the Lairg loop. This is a vital source of passengers and potential freight traffic which could help to spread the rail access costs over a larger number of trains. Although there were murmurings of disappointment from some members of the audience, the vast majority accepted that the window of opportunity for the Dornoch Firth rail crossing has passed.
Railtrack confirmed their wish to undertake an engineering survey of the line to ensure it remained available for use by passenger and freight trains and to determine what was required to increase line speeds and welcomed the ScotRail and H&IE commitment to this project.
The final contribution to the conference came from Andrew Seedhouse based at Plymouth University, who has successfully created a partnership to promote branch lines in Devon and who has gained support for these activities from ERDF funds. The audience was most impressed with Mr Seedhouse's presentation and he, in turn, was most impressed with ScotRail's positive attitude to the development of the Highland rail network. From his presentation it seemed that Regional Railways in England were only interested in the main trunk routes rather than minor routes or branch lines.
Dr Ken MacTaggart of Highlands & Islands Enterprise offered to hold a meeting of interested parties to attempt to establish a similar partnership and to see what steps could be taken to integrate the transport network perhaps by the establishment of a PTA as suggested by Brian Wilson, to examine the development and promotion of all the railways in the Highlands, and to look closely at appointing a Railways Development Officer.
The conference concluded with a question and answer session.