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"The Highland Main Line" by Neil Sinclair: Edinburgh meeting of 17th September 2013

Railway author Neil Sinclair was the speaker for the first meeting of the Scottish Region's 2013 - 2014 season and was introduced by John Yellowlees. After graduating from Aberdeen University, Neil Sinclair was for most of his working life a Senior Curator in Tyne and Wear Museums and among his responsibilities were Monkwearmouth Station and the Stephenson Railway Museum.

Since 1969, when his first article on railways was published, he has written several books in addition to many articles on railways and he has now written seven editions of the Strathspey Railway guide Book in addition to his major work, the "Highland Main Line" which was the subject of this meeting.

Neil's own interest in the line began in 1949 when he lived with his family in East Yorkshire, but visits to the area impressed him and he developed a particular interest in the railway. Neil began his illustrated presentation by explaining the background to the building of the Highland Main Line. In 1860 a bill was put before Parliament seeking authority for the construction of the Inverness & Perth Junction Railway and on 22th July 1861 Parliament passed the Act.

Work commenced in October 1861 with the first sod being cut at Forres on 17th of that month. Bearing in mind the rugged terrain and the harsh weather conditions of highland winters, and that all work was done manually as there were no machinery, it was remarkable that the line opened for traffic on 1 June 1863 between Dunkeld and Pitlochry, with the remaining sections of line being opened to traffic on 9 September 1863. The total cost of the 104 mile line was reported as being £919,204.

In 1865 the Inverness & Perth Junction Railway became part of the Highland Railway who operated it until 1923 when the Highland railway became part of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway.

Neil highlighted the fact that the railways brought employment to the area and provided the means to move goods speedily. Cattle, sheep, fish and timber were the main goods traffic and this coupled with tourism meant that the line was well used.

By the late 1870's other railway companies were eyeing the traffic to Inverness with ideas of gaining a share, so a new line from Aviemore to Inverness via Carrbridge was built obviating the need for trains to travel via Forres. This line opened in 1898. Doubling of the line between Balir Atholl and Dalwhinnie, some 23 miles was also undertaken in 1898.

In 1948 British Rail was created and took over operations. Network Rail became responsible for the infrastructure in 2002 and services on the line are provided mainly by ScotRail today.

Neil showed many photographs taken in the early days of the railway's history including trains and signal boxes. One feature of the line is that Druimuachdar pass is the highest point on the UK rail network at 1484 feet above sea level.

The line was one of the first to be dieselised and among the photographs Neil showed were some of the early diesel rolling stock including diesel multiple units and class 24 and class 26 locomotives.

Dr. Beeching's 1963 report "Reshaping the Railways" resulted in many railway closures in the Highlands including the line between Aviemore and Forres along with the Aberfeldy branch line. Many intermediate stations were also closed and much of the line singled, but with the development of North Sea Oil, sections of the track were reinstated to provide additional capacity.

Neil looked at various stations on the line, highlighting the various distinctive architectural features of the buildings and other infrastructure, for example the Duke of Atholl insisted on decorative features on bridges and viaducts across land owned by him. Interestingly, the line features the only wooden main line viaduct in the UK, the Altnaslanach Viaduct, now a category "A" listed structure.

There was a lively question and answer session and discussion included possible future developments and the possible impact of the announcement that the main A9 road will be upgraded to dual carriageway throughout. Also covered were such subjects as faster trains and additional journeys as well as the on-going development of tourist traffic.

At the conclusion of the meeting, John Yellowlees presented Neil with one of the Scottish Region's souvenir engraved whisky glasses as a memento of the evening.

Report by John Fender.


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