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"The Present and Future of the Strathspey Railway" by Douglas Norris - Glasgow meeting of 11 January 2011

Formed in 1971, the Strathspey Railway opened the five-mile line from Aviemore to Boat of Garten in 1978 and extended a further four miles to Broomhill in 2002.

This year it is planning 150 days of steam operation, and is expecting to receive trains on 40 occasions off the national network via the mainline connection at Aviemore - mainly the Royal Scotsman which conveys up to 36 customers on luxury tours of Scotland.

The Railway has eight full-time staff including two apprentices, but relies mainly on volunteers, with 25 drivers whose ages range from their twenties to their seventies. At Aviemore the 1898 locomotive shed adjoins a modern and much better-insulated carriage shed funded by a legacy from the estate of the late Roy Hamilton.

Operating since 1998 out of the ScotRail station at Aviemore, trains pass the former Speyside station which until then had been their terminus, and use a level crossing over a public road at Dalfaber. The route is mainly in forest as far as Boat of Garten, where there is a fully-signalled two-platform layout complete with footbridge acquired from Dalnaspidal for just £5 and subsequently refurbished at much greater cost.

Crossing a bridge over a road reinstated by Highland Council in 1996, the line now enters glorious open countryside with magnificent views of the Cairngorms, initially on a wide solum that formerly accommodated also the old Great North of Scotland Speyside line and continuing to Broomhill, where the single-platform rebuilt station signalled as a request stop serves no more than half-a-dozen houses within a half-mile radius.

The Railway's ambition therefore is to extend a final three miles to Grantown-on-Spey, already a substantial settlement before its coming in 1863 created places like Aviemore. Beyond the runround loop just past Broomhill, second-hand track generously provided by Network Rail was laid in six months up to the site of the viaduct that once took the line over the River Dulnain.

A replacement bridge from Motherwell supplied by Network Rail was delivered by train three years ago and awaits installation, but a dispute over whether a landowner is entitled to move farm vehicles along the trackbed must be resolved before the Railway can lay track towards Grantown.

However the greatest obstacle is where A95 realignment removed a section of embankment a mile south of the town at Gaich, and Transport Scotland have indicated that the Railway must put down £1.25M, this sum being the incremental cost of including a tunnel in a further as yet uncommitted upgrade of the road - a tall order for a business that in a good year makes no more than £10-15,000, so a Trust formed to oversee the extension has launched an appeal for funding towards its contribution towards the scheme, which requires a Transport and Works Order.

With a projected short-term uplift of 15-20% in passenger numbers projected for the Grantown extension, the main ongoing challenge is to fill the 400-seat trains, and in recent years production of leaflets has reduced as web marketing has proved more cost-effective. The Railway is now well-endowed with steam locomotives, having completed in 1910 a second overhaul of Caledonian Railway no 828, and plans this year to complete the restoration to working order of BR No 46512.

Tank engine Braeriach which took forty years to restore has been available for hire to other railways, and the Strathspey has in the past played host to visiting locomotives including the Great Western's City of Truro so would be willing to receive on loan the Duke of Sutherland's engine Dunrobin now returning to the UK after 45 years in Canada should its new owners the North of England Open Air Museum at Beamish ever wish to make it available.

At quieter times the Railway operates a diesel multiple-unit, but using it to offer public transport between Grantown and Aviemore would require a share of the subsidy now going to the bus operator for his hourly service, while upgrading the line from the present 25 mph maximum speed for speeds competitive with road transport could result in loss of a number of useful exemptions, for example at the level crossing.

The Scottish Region thanks First ScotRail for accommodating the meeting at its Training Academy.

Report by John Yellowlees


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