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"Highland Survivor: the story of the Far North Line" by David Spaven: Edinburgh meeting of 22 November 2016

David Spaven with his book Highland Survivor: the story of the Far North Lined

David Spaven with his book "Highland Survivor: the story of the Far North Line"

© John Yellowlees 2016

David's personal connections with this remarkable rural railway began in 1966 when his father, Frank, was posted to head up planning & research at the new Highlands and Islands Development Board in Inverness.

Holiday jobs on the line followed at Invergordon and during his railway career he was a manager promoting railfreight in the area. Thus he gained an appetite to know what has been the secrets of its survival.

Pursuing a circuitous route through fertile country as far as Bonar Bridge, the line climbed to 488 feet near Lairg, unfortunately omitting Dornoch, then returned to the coast except at Dunrobin Castle before veering again inland across the moors to avoid the Ord of Caithness. With branches to Fortose, from The Mound to Dornoch and to Lybster, many more were proposed but fortunately not delivered as they would have been financial disasters - with the regrettable exception of an extension to Scrabster.

The many intermediate stations meant frequent loops, and the only doubling came between Clachnaharry and Clunes before the Great War, when Jellicoe Specials took servicemen bound for Scapa Flow to whom the WRVS at Dingwall served 134,864 cups of tea. Doubts about the Line's viability emerged from the 1930s, but consideration of total closure gave way to the shutting of 20 intermediate stations (plus the Dornoch branch) in June 1960 which improved journey times.

The Modernisation Plan whose impact was varied elsewhere did at least bring good diesels to the far North, but the infrastructure remained antiquated with signalboxes at both ends of some loops. Then with the endorsement of a hawkish Scottish Office the Beeching Report in 1963 proposed total closure of the Far North and Kyle lines, prompting Frank Spaven - at that time a civil servant at the Scottish Office advising on the regional development implications of Beeching cuts - to observe that the potential savings were outweighed by the cost of lost tarpaulins across the network! The positive themes of Beeching such as InterCity and Freightliner being of benefit elsewhere, opposition was led by the North of Scotland Vigilantes Association whose MacPuff campaign brought together community leaders, farmers like Phil Durham and businessmen including distiller Frank Thomson.

When all business organisations and all political parties united against closure and the Government's advisory Highland Panel threatened to resign, Minister of Transport Ernest Marples was left with little option but to announce a reprieve "in present circumstances" which initially was only for the terminal stationsat Wick and Thurso. Four intermediate ones did close, but the rest settled down to an era of three passenger trains each way daily and in the 1970s a freight boom occasioned by North Sea oil and by the aluminium shelter at Invergordon (many of whose workers lived in the expanding town of Alness, where the passenger station reopenedin 1973), with arail siding put in for the MK Shand pipe coating plant at Invergordon at just four weeks' notice to move pipes to Maud [I was wrong about Strichen] on the Buchan branch line.

Scottish Association for Public Transport anticipation of improving journey times proved wide of the mark, and a major setback to the Line's prospects came with Scottish Office duplicity over inclusion of a rail bridge in the A9 Dornoch Firth crossing, exposed in a leaked document after which David's stapler was impounded and he was interrogated by Scottish Region senior management. No-one was prepared to take a strategic view of the value of a loop at Lentran which was removed in 1988, but in the following year General Manager John Ellis got immediate Board approval to replace the Ness Bridge swept away in a storm.

Radio signalling and introduction of new trains also brightened the future, and there was another boom in freight with the return of oil to Lairg, lineside timber loading and the ultimately unsustainable Safeway Flier to Georgemas. By now Frank Roach had arrived on the scene, first forming the Friends of the Far North Line and then becoming the Rail Development Manager at first HRP and then HITRANS where his successful initiatives have included innovative new stations at Beauly and Conon Bridge, the Invernet local train service and all-year Sunday trains. Passenger numbers boomed, and while charter trains increasingly helped to raise the profile of the Line's tourism potential, this remains very largely untapped despite great diversity of scenery and significant architectural interest, including 20 listed structures.

Over the last two or three years there has been a decline. The passenger train service has become one of the most unreliablein Scotland, with late running due to infrastructure inadequacies and cancellations arising from staff shortages and train breakdowns. Declining patronage may also be prompted by the worsening uncompetitiveness of journey-times (train services are slower than they were between 2000 and 2005) and by the lack of further effort to exploit its tourist appeal, while freight is now modest and there has been a lack of any significant local management presence. The line thus runs the risk of being seen as a narrowly-focused and underperforming railway, and unless the situation can be improved - with perhaps micro-franchising, a new loop crossing loop between Inverness and Muir of Ord, colour-light signalling as far as Dingwall, faster transits through loops, level crossing closures and a Georgemas chord to improve journey-times, bespoke tourist trains, a mixed sleeper and intermodal freight service overnight to Edinburgh - it may become vulnerable to calls during any economic downturn that the support it needs could be better spent on improvements to road services.

David's book - Highland Survivor: the story of the Far North Line - can be purchased from Kessock Books at www.kessockbooks.co.uk/highland-survivor/4592395635.

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.

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