Highland Rail Partnership's Rail Development Manager Frank Roach told the Inverness meeting on 5 October that since its inception in 1997 to promote passenger, freight and heritage aspects of the Highland network, the Partnership had attracted 24 funders, the latest being Forest Enterprise and Porterbrook Leasing.
A recent study for Highlands and Islands Enterprise on the case for Highland rail had found that the rail network was responsible for supporting 1506 jobs, providing £493M in social and economic benefits over 30 years and taking 7.2 million lorry-miles per annum off the roads.
During the current ScotRail franchise the increase in passenger numbers had been 50% on the Far North Line, 40% on the Kyle Line, 35% on the Highland Main Line, 20% on the West Highland Lines and even 13% on the Inverness-Aberdeen line, where improvements to the service would not be possible until the infrastructure was upgraded. The 0716 Tain-Inverness service introduced in September 2000 was now carrying up to 130 commuters attracted by some very competitively-priced Flexipass fares. The all-year Sunday services for Kyle and Wick introduced in September 2001 now represented the busiest train of the week southbound on the Far North Line. Beauly Station reopened at a cost of only £247k in April 2002 was handling 22,000 passengers annually and had already justified investment in a larger waiting shelter.
Passenger schemes under development included the Invernet project to provide a commuter service from Kingussie and five return trips to Invergordon or Tain, CCTV and improvements to car and cycle parking at stations, modifications for better cycle, luggage and toilet accommodation on the Class 158 fleet and the possible reopening of Conon Station. Upgrading of the infrastructure for an improved Inverness-Aberdeen service had been subject to much study, but even if the full scheme did not materialise, there would be scope for timesaving through realignment at Forres and for more commuter trains at the Inverness end.
Freight successes had included lineside timber loading at Kinbrace (now likely to be emulated at Rannoch), the Safeway Flyer to Inverness and Georgemas, BP oil deliveries to Fort William and Lairg, high-speed parcels to Inverness. Heritage achievements had included an extended season for "The Jacobite", Britain's only daily mainline steam train which was benefiting from its prominence in the Harry Potter films, reopening of the ten-mile Keith & Dufftown Railway and extension of the Strathspey Railway to Broomhill, alias Glenbogle in BBC1's "Monarch of the Glen".
For the future, Frank saw the need for faster journey-times with improved Sunday services, more commuting opportunities and better interchange; gauge clearance for bigger loads, daily trains for time-sensitive freight and a network of intermodal and dedicated terminals; robust resignalling, higher line-speeds, increased capacity and improved stations.
Report by John Fender.
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