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Speeding Up The North Railway Line
by James Henderson

A speeded-up railway service from Inverness to Thurso, to compete with faster coach journeys on an improved A9, could halve the present four-hour meandering trip and give a two-hourly service in both directions. This was the vision presented to an interested audience in Mackay's Hotel, Wick, by railway planners invited by SNP MSP Rob Gibson to present a preliminary study of the possibilities of major rail improvements within the next 15 years.

By relegating the so-called "Lairg Loop" to a mainly tourist-oriented line, while retaining essential oil, mail and forestry traffic on it, a 15-mile direct path saving 26 miles between Tain and Golspie would involve three major building structures. Consultant Howard Pack of Corus Railway Infrastructure Services outlined a new crossing of the Dornoch Firth, west of Tain, either alongside or integrated with the 1991 road bridge; a tunnel "perhaps the length of a football pitch" to give direct access to a new railway station in the centre of Dornoch, cutting out level crossings; and a three-span 250-metre long bridge just east of
Littleferry to give a direct run into Golspie.

Rail enthusiast John Moore proposed that a steam locomotive tourist attraction could be run along the Lairg loop from Tain to Golspie, taking in such interests as Carbisdale Castle, Harrods' Falls of Shin Visitor Centre and Dunrobin Castle, all within easy reach of the track.

"Governments divide and rule, and I have always been of the opinion that even with a Dornoch Firth crossing, the Lairg loop should be retained because it still would have a lot of uses. But certain people around the Lairg Loop do not accept this.  "If we can stop the division among people about the Lairg Loop and get them to accept that there is a use for their line as well as a main route north, but until the Scottish Executive see there is no division they will do nothing about it."

David Flear, convener of Highland Council's Caithness area committee, said he and his colleagues were strongly in favour of improvement to the Far North Line, though they recognised that some areas like Lairg and Rogart felt they would be disadvantaged. Efforts would have to be made to alleviate any such loss of amenity and service for them..

Mr Gibson indicated that a public meeting is likely to be called at Lairg to try to allay fears over the future of local rail services. Said Mr Pack: "We think it is possible for large stretches to be run at similar speeds to the Inverness to Perth line, which is generally about 90 to 100 mph. That is not impossible for the Far North. So how could that benefit, with an improved time-table? With three trains a day each way, it must be one of the worst services in the United Kingdom.

We're looking at two different markets - one is locally for people in and around Inverness, Tain and possibly to Lairg. They need a regular service. What the people from Caithness and north Sutherland need are non-stop express services right the way through to Inverness and farther south.  "This could bring down the service time from currently four hours to about two, making a dramatic difference to the social inclusion of the people of Caithness. The thought of being able to leave Thurso, instead of now at 7.10 and arrive just before mid-day, to arrive actually around 9 am would be a huge improvement."

Dornoch could be accessed much more easily than the routes envisaged in the 1985 study, giving a site for a station on common land, close to the Parliamentary road.  "We think there is a very sound case for achieving something here. There are all sorts of things that have to be done to meet bureaucratic standards, for Government schemes, appraisals, market research, environmental assessment, timetable requirements .

"So we have to provide a convincing case to go back to the Scottish Executive and the local council for such investment in the Highlands," said Mr Pack.  His colleague, Clive Roberts, an infrastructure designer, said the project could take anything from three to five years in the initial stages of preparation, and up to five more for the final build. The original scheme for crossing Loch Fleet envisaged two multi-span bridges, one was of 263 metres in length, the other 250 metres, with sections of causeway linking them.  Any new structure was likely to be of three spans, a central one of 150 metres and two of 50 metres, giving an overall length of 250 metres.

"We are contemplating a single-track railway, but it would be possible to incorporate a road passage as well," he said, in response to a questioner. But he made it clear they were opposed to providing a "rat run" to the south for motorists.  One of the bonuses of a bridge in that location could mean that the electricity cables, carried for the past 50 years over the loch on unsightly high pylons, could be run within its structure, with a consequent gain for the environment, said Mr Pack. "We are not looking for an obtrusive structure that would dominate the landscape - we want as quiet and simple a scheme as could be achieved."

A suggestion from the floor that a barrage might be erected across the entrance to Loch Fleet to let the eight-knot tides drive power turbines, with the railway running across the top, was entertained as "an interesting idea," until Rob Gibson pointed out that nature conservation strictures on sites of scientific interest had been greatly strengthened since the 1985 proposals to bridge the loch Rob Gibson told the meeting that the north railway system, in slow decay over the years, faced a much brighter future with the possible development of a wood pulp factory at Invergordon in Easter Ross, and a spur for the Cromarty Port Authority running from Nigg to Fearn.

Questioned on possible costs, Mr Gibson said that the 14 kilometres of track proposed between Stirling, Alloa and Kincardine was in excess of 37 million pounds, a tramway track around Edinburgh would be 210 million pounds. He estimated that the engineering work required on the Far North Line to attain their overall speed objective would be between 40 and 50 million pounds.

Ken Sutherland, of Rail Futures Scotland, a long-time lobbyist for the shorter journey to the Far North, said: "At the moment this line is really the transport of last resort.  The concept of a two hour journey, every two hours, would mean that people from Thurso and Wick could get into Inverness every morning for work, for education, for shopping before nine o'clock."

The faster railway would serve a local population of 50,000 people north of Tain, as well as having major advantages for Orkney travellers and attracting freight off the already stretched A9 trunk road.

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