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The Caithness Partnership
Caithness Transport Forum

(JANUARY 2007)
Caithness Transport Forum is pleased to have this opportunity to comment on HITRANS’ draft Regional Transport Strategy (RTS). The Forum believes that a good quality transport network is fundamental to economic strength and social inclusion and we welcome investment in the transport infrastructure of the Highlands & Islands.

We feel that there must be clear synchronicity between the Regional Transport Strategy and Scotland’s National Transport Strategy and therefore have demonstrated throughout this response that the transport priorities for Caithness are fully in alignment with national policy.

As it stands, there is very little for Caithness in the draft RTS. We feel this could be due to the limited input from the county into the drafting process. In contrast, we submit this response secure in the knowledge that it has been brought together using inclusive and transparent methods. Caithness Transport Forum is a sub group of the local community planning partnership, Caithness Partnership, and is made up of representatives of the public agencies, business and community sectors from across the county. We have recently produced a Transport Vision for Caithness (ENCLOSED) and the views represented there have had wide support from transport users both within the county and from Orkney. This response to the RTF is guided by that Vision document, has been endorsed by the full membership of the Transport Forum, and we are confident that the opinions expressed here also reflect the views of the wider Caithness community.

CTF was pleased to see that the Berriedale Braes crossing features in the Provisional Programme and we would like to see this pushed forward in the timetable to become an early priority within the programme.
As a lifeline road for both Caithness and Orkney the A9 north of Helmsdale must be a major priority in any regional transport strategy. In 2006 a series of landslips close to the road at the Berriedale Brae brought the vulnerability of the road into sharp focus and its importance as the main route for a population of 25,000 in Caithness and an additional 19,000 in Orkney. The alternative route into the county from the south via Kildonan Strath (single track) is already is a precarious state and weight restrictions are imposed.
Over the next 20-30 years there will be additional usage of the A9 into Caithness as major developments such as the Pentland Firth energy developments, the super-port in Scapa Flow and the forecast timber harvest (several million tones in Caithness and Sutherland) starting in 2010 make early action on a Berriedale Braes crossing imperative.
The CTF has received confirmation that the A9 Inverness to Thurso route is regarded as part of the Trans European Network and we understand that there is an obligation that these routes are of a “high, uniform and continuous level of service, comfort and safety” to which sections of the A9 north of Dornoch clearly do not comply.
National strategic outcome: Improved journey times and connections, improving quality, accessibility and affordability of services to, from and within remote and rural areas in Scotland

A99 LATHERON TO WICK: The high rates of accident on the A99 Latheron to Wick road make it surprising that it does not feature at all in the draft RTS. This oversight must be rectified as the A99 is one of the most dangerous roads in the region.
This stretch of road is one of the most dangerous in Europe and a European Road Assessment ranks it as “High-risk”. In 2002 a study by the AA ranked the A99 as the second most dangerous road in Scotland. A further study in 2006 demonstrated that it is still one on the most dangerous roads in Britain.
National strategic outcome: Safety and security of travel,

IMPROVEMENT TO STRATEGIC ROUTES: CTF was encouraged to see that the A99 and A836 to Gills are regarded as a strategic route and as such requires to be upgraded.
In addition to local traffic, the route carries upwards of 100,000 passengers to the ferry at Gills yet in some places the road is still single track. CTF would like to see the entire route from north of Dornoch to Gills and the route west of Gills (A836) to Thurso upgraded.
National strategic outcome: Improved journey times and connections, improving quality, accessibility and affordability of services to, from and within remote and rural areas in Scotland

WICK TO THURSO UPGRADED TO STRATEGIC ROUTE: The CTF feels that the road between Wick and Thurso, as two strategic centres of population, requires to be regarded as a Strategic Route. We would also like to see this amended on the map in the draft RTS.

WICK AIRPORT GPS LANDING AID: the most important priority for air transport in Wick is the introduction of GPS landing aid at the Wick Airport to improve reliability of service.
The airport at Wick has a tendency to suffer from sea haar and fog at certain times of year. The introduction of new technology would improve the opportunities for landings to be made in poor conditions all year round and we wish to have this included in the RTS.
National strategic outcomes: Improved journey times and connections, safety and security of travel.

WICK AIRPORT EXTENSION OF RUNWAY: Extension of the runway at Wick and the development of Hangar No. 1 as an aircraft engineering base to enhance the service provided in the area is also a priority for Caithness and we would like to see this included in the RTS.
Wick Airport has been identified as a strategic North Sea Airport within Europe and as such has the potential to be central to economic regeneration within the area.
National strategic outcomes: Improved journey times and connections, improving quality, accessibility and affordability of services to, from and within remote and rural areas in Scotland

IMPROVEMENT TO THE FAR NORTH LINE: CTF believes that significant infrastructure investment in the Far North route is required to bring the network up to a standard which allows rail transport to compete with road –the comparative time difference between road and rail transport from Inverness to Caithness is the largest of any similar journey in Scotland.
The main priorities for Caithness are as follows which must be included in the RTS are:

  • Dornoch Link – the construction of a rail link over the Dornoch Firth will reduce end-to-end journey times by 40 minutes. (Although a Dornoch Bridge does not feature in the draft RTS it should be noted that a recent study by ArupScotland for Scottish Executive demonstrated that there is strong public support for a Dornoch rail bridge and there were more public responses on this topic than any other in the study into rail investment priorities throughout Scotland.) We feel strongly that HITRANS has a responsibility to include this project in the RTS so that a full examination of its potential can take place.

  • Direct chord to Thurso line and new station at Halkirk – the new chord will allow trains to process directly to Thurso without calling at Georgemas Junction – passenger trains would then call at Halkirk, Wick and Thurso, the main centres of population. Georgemas Junction could then be closed for all traffic except freight and developed as a centre fro freight distribution.

  • Minor improvements/changes to speed up the line including raising line speed throughout, upgraded loop speeds, upgraded level crossings and upgrading the signaling system. We believe that these could cut a further 20 minutes off the total journey time.

It must be noted that the Far North Line is part of the Trans European Network and
National strategic outcomes: Improved journey times and connections, improving quality, accessibility and affordability of services to, from and within remote and rural areas in Scotland

Scrabster Harbour has been developing its potential in terms of tourism and is set to become an international gateway in summer 2007 when the Norrona passenger ferry begins berthing weekly at the port. The ship will ply between Scandinavia, the Faroe Islands and Scotland. CTF feels that Scrabster’s status as an international gateway port should be recognised in the RTS and amendments made to the RTS to suit. We feel this also lends weight to our argument to have the stretch of the A9 between Wick and Thurso upgraded to strategic route significance within the RTS (see Road section above).
National strategic outcomes: Improved journey times and connections

WICK HARBOUR/DEVELOPING FREIGHT POTENTIAL: The recently established Wick Harbour Authority took over management of the port in 2005 under a new commercially oriented Revision Order and is energetically pursuing opportunities to diversity its income. Improving access to the Harbour, particularly the A99, and improving sea to rail facilities in Wick will increase the opportunities available to the Harbour Authority.
National strategic outcomes: Delivering reduced emissions


EXTENSION OF COMMUNITY TRANSPORT: Although a great deal of weight is placed on community transport in the National Transport Strategy there is very little mention of it in the draft RTS. The main priority for Caithness in terms of community transport is extension to the Dial-a-ride service. We would like to see commitment to extending community transport in the RTS.
National priority – improving quality, accessibility and affordability of services to, from and within remote and rural areas in Scotland


ECONOMIC FORECASTING – CTF feels that there is a general lack of economic forecasting in the RTS. As already stated, future economic generators such as the super port in Scapa Flow, Pentland Firth energy developments, development at Scrabster and Wick ports, predicted timber harvests, and other economic activity in the wake of Dounreay decommissioning must be taken into account in a strategy for transport. Recent and continued dispersal of the larger national retailers into Caithness means increased freight into the county as well as increased traffic from Orkney. All these should be taken into consideration in the RTS. The National Strategy states that capital expenditure on transport is an economic development driver funding for transport and the Scottish Executive aims to split the budget 70:30 between public transport and capital expenditure. We do, however, support the HITRANS stance that the majority of the budget in the Highlands & Islands to go towards capital expenditure projects, including those detailed earlier in this response.

TIMBER TRANSPORT ROUTES - We note that the draft RTS does not include a budget for maintenance of timber transport routes and we would like to see this amended in the RTS. Clear predictions can be made for timber harvest in the Highlands and it is clear that many millions of tonnes will be harvested over the next few decades and transported from the north for processing. The damage caused to roads by heavy lorries is well documented and the cost implications to the preferred routes must be taken into account.

FLOOD DAMAGE: Increasing damage due to flooding has become an undeniable regional trend due to climate change. CTF feels that this must be recognised in the RTS and commitment made to set aside budget for repair of flood and other weather damage.