The Far North Line is the most northerly railway line in the UK running from Inverness to Thurso and Wick. On its southern stretch from Inverness to Dingwall, it shares space with the Kyle Line, the railway line that runs from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh. Together they are some of the longest and most rural and isolated railway lines in the country. Despite passing through areas with very sparse populations, there are some significant populations that are served, such as Tain and Thurso. This study will look at the infrastructure, the services provided and end-to-end journey times. Problems that exist in these areas will be explored and then possible improvements and solutions will be outlined. The implications that these solutions have to other areas will also be examined.
The main competition that the Far North Line faces is from the road. But, the railway is already at a significant disadvantage in terms of time that it takes for the train to get from one end of the Far North Line to the other. The timetable already has a fairly staggering difference in journey times, ranging from 4 hours 31 minutes (07:00 Inverness to Wick, arriving at 11:31) to 4 hours 10 minutes (16:00 Wick to Inverness, arriving at 20:10 (Saturday only)). The average is roughly 4 hours and 20 minutes. However, the car journey takes about 2 hours and 30 minutes, which is a significant difference.
When the railway was built in the Victoria era, there was not the technology nor the money for several bridges across several large stretches of water, such as the Dornoch Firth or the Moray and Cromarty Firths immediately north of Inverness. It also proved too expensive to continue along the coast from Helmsdale to Wick via Lybster. Therefore, the railway had to take several detours to avoid these pieces of landscape. In the 1970s, money was provided for a new road bridge over the Dornoch Firth. At the time, there was a proposal that a new bridge should also take the Far North Line over as well in order to give trains from Inverness to Thurso and Wick a more direct journey rather than taking a big detour via Invershin. This did not happen. Thus, whilst the road has benefited from significant investment, the railway has been left largely as it was in the Victoria era, only with many fewer passing loops (places on the single track line where trains can pass) due to the Beeching cuts.
This is only half the story for Wick passengers. Because of a shortage of units, trains stop at Thurso before going on to Wick. This adds 30 minutes onto the journey time. Trains used to divide at Georgemas Junction, with one half going to Thurso, and the other to Wick. This does not happen anymore. A possible solution to this has been having an additional unit based at the north end of the line that shuttles between Georgemas Junction and Wick to connect with the main Inverness to Thurso trains. This would bring the journey time to under 4 hours before any other improvements are made. Between times, this could also run between Wick and Thurso, which can already sustain an hourly bus services.
The Current Timetable
Currently, there are 4 trains per day in each direction that run the full length of the Far North Line. Additional services run from Lairg, Ardgay, Tain, Invergordon and Dingwall to Inverness (and returns) to plug the gaps between services. Add the 4 trains per day that run to and from Kyle of Lochalsh, that gives 12 northbound and 14 southbound trains Monday to Saturday, with 1 additional late-night service on Friday and Saturday nights. However, this timetable is very unevenly distributed. Departures from Inverness are at: 07:00, 08:55, 10:41, 10:56, 11:42, 13:35, 14:00, 14:50, 17:12, 17:54, 18:31, 21:06 (and 23:33). Arrivals into Inverness are at: 07:43, 08:12, 08:50, 10:35, 12:26, 13:17, 14:42, 16:26, 16:46, 17:02, 19:55, 20:13, 20:57 and 23:31.
North Highland Timetable.
Why is this timetable so uneven? Why are there up to 3 trains in an hour followed by none for over 2 hours? Kyle of Lochalsh has nearly a 6 hour gap between the first and second trains in the morning (06:11 then 12:08) but then sees only 90 minutes between the second and third (12:08 and 13:46). The answer comes down to two limitations: rolling stock and infrastructure.
The Rolling Stock Problem
Only a maximum of 6 trains are on the North Highland Lines at any one point. Because of how they interwork with some Aberdeen to Inverness services, there are actually 7 trains required for a full day's service, with one train swapping with another part way through the day. That puts a serious limit on the services that can be operated, mainly because the additional short length workings are only there to provide additional capacity at a time when a unit would otherwise be sitting idle: IE, the way the timetable and unit diagrams have evolved means that these short distance workings were an afterthought which were squeezed in where the rolling stock diagrams, infrastructure and staffing allowed it.
Can the timetable be better given the current infrastructure and rolling stock constraints? The answer is yes, but only marginally. I have drawn up a timetable that sees 14 northbound and 15 southbound services with a gap of no more than 2 hours between trains. Departures: 06:40, 08:25, 09:25, 10:40, 11:00, 12:48, 14:24, 15:10, 17:00, 17:23, 17:42, 18:32, 20:20, 22:00. Arrivals: 07:45, 08:20, 09:06, 10:30, 12:17, 12:46, 13:53, 15:06, 16:16, 16:50, 18:23, 19:49, 20:10, 21:24 and 23:04. As you can see there are still some large gaps and still a few clusters, but the most of the clusters remain at peak hours (yes, there is still a rush hour even this far north). The gap between services on the Kyle Line has been evened out too, giving departures at 06:34, 11:10 and 14:00 rather than the current 06:11, 12:08 and 13:46. The full timetable is available below.
The Bigger Infrastructure Problem
Suppose that there was an infinite supply of rolling stock, could the timetable be better? It could be. I drew up one which included both the Wick shuttle, extra services on the southern end and an additional service each way between Inverness and Thurso. The full timetable is available below.
This second improvement still leaves a lot to be desired. There are still big gaps in service, even for the Dingwall to Inverness section where there are now 18 trains each way.
The uneven spacing of the passing loops means that a clockface timetable (IE: one where trains depart at the same time past each hour, or each second hour) is only really sustainable as far as Tain (about 70 minutes north of Inverness). Once one gets beyond there, the time trains have to wait in the passing loops for a long period of time in order to pass each other. This does nothing for the already poor journey time. Furthermore, it means that the first train of the day from the north is at 05:30, whilst the first train northbound is at 07:40. This would represent a regression in service for the line. Add the long distances between loops on the Kyle Line, and one gets a timetable that is very tight in some parts, but with very long waits in others.
The stage that would be ideal is for a clockface timetable that gives an hourly service as far as Tain, with a service every 3 hours beyond to Thurso. The Kyle Line services run as extra services giving a half hourly service from Inverness to Dingwall, and a 3 hourly service beyond to Kyle of Lochalsh.
Single Track and Reliability
Although I have been outlining timetables that adhere to the current infrastructure constraints, these would only work in theory. In practice, even the current North Highland timetable experiences almost daily reliability problems, all down to the fact that the entire North Highland lines are single-track. Because trains can only pass at certain points on the railway, any lateness from one service in one direction, is transferred to any train travelling in the opposite direction. And the delay caused by the earlier delayed train ripples down the entire line because all trains have to wait for delayed trains to cross. Even when the originally delayed train finishes, it will have left 2 or 3 other trains delayed, which will have in turn caused another 2 or 3 trains a delay. This turns a small delay for one train in the morning into a large delay for all trains towards the end of the day.
Imagine the following scenario: There is a temporary speed restriction at Bunchrew (which is between Inverness and Muir of Ord) which extends journey times for all trains by 3 minutes. What happens?
The 07:00 Inverness to Wick service would arrive at Muir or Ord at 07:23 rather than 07:20. Therefore, the 06:14 Ardgay to Inverness service would leave 2 minutes late at 07:24, meaning a 5 minute delay arriving at Inverness. Even with a minute of recovery, the 07:00 Inverness to Wick would also delay the 06:26 Lairg to Inverness by a minimum of 1 minute. This would be 4 minutes by the time it arrived at Inverness. The 06:18 Wick to Inverness would also be delayed by 5 minutes by the time it arrived at Inverness. And so on. Delays caused by previous delays compound until trains are 10-15 minutes late. Even when one train is unilaterally late, the lack of recovery time in any timetable means that this delay is retained throughout the day.
Additional passing loops at more frequent intervals means that if a train becomes late, it can pass another train at a different loop. While this can happen at the moment, loops are at least 15 minutes apart, which means that trains have to be delayed by at least 20-30 minutes (depending on priority and other signalling considerations) before the services pass each other at a different place. This is even worse on the northern section of the line beyond Helmsdale where the only loop between there at the end of the line at Thurso and Wick is Forsinard, over 30 minutes from either. Practically every train is timed to pass each other at Forsinard, and any delay that any train gains will be transferred to the other service because (unless the delay is near to double the time it takes to travel between the passing loops), the other service will already be on the single-track section. The Kyle Line has the same situation, with loops roughly 30 minutes apart.
What this means is that my more intensive timetables will make the reliability situation worse than it already is, especially my intensive use of the Dingwall to Inverness section. Therefore, additional passing loops are required, at least in the sections of railway where they are sparse or the service is more frequent.
Additional Passing Loops
The most important location for a loop is between Inverness and Muir of Ord. The time taken to travel this distance is 20 minutes with the stop at Beauly, one of the longest distances between loops on the line. The intensive service amplifies delays in this area. Local campaigning for this has been going on for a number of years. Known as the Lentran Loop, it would be a 3 mile stretch of double track roughly between the old stations of Bunchrew and Clunes. This would be a “dynamic passing loop” IE: one where trains would not have to stop in order to pass each other. Currently every passing loop in the north Highlands requires trains to stop before proceeding.
Working north, the next place to put passing loops would be somewhere between Helmsdale and Forsinard, which is currently the biggest single-track section without a loop on the network. The most likely location for this would be just south of Kinbrace railway station or at Kildonan railway station.
Between Forsinard and Georgemas Junction, the best place for a passing loop would be at Altnabreac railway station. Scotscalder also used to have a passing loop, but after my visit to the station in February 2018, I am unconvinced that one could be installed there. Georgemas Junction's 2nd platform was closed in 2012 to make way for a freight terminal. The length of the platform means that two trains can fit on, one working Inverness to Thurso services, and the other the connecting shuttle to Wick. A second platform at Thurso would be useful.
Major Infrastructure Work?
Of course, the best thing for journey times and capacity would be to build a railway bridge parallel to the Dornoch Firth road bridge. Direct Inverness to Thurso services would then bypass the 45 minute loop between Tain and Golspie whilst other trains would continue to run between the two, just not running directly all the way to Thurso. However, this would prove prohibitively expensive for most politicians, where investment in railway infrastructure even in the busiest places hard to come by. Costs were estimated at £50-60 million in 2005, which will be much higher once inflation and Network Rail's chronic overspending is taken into account. I argue that this is necessary, but even the Scottish government would require some serious convincing, especially given the bias of politicians towards the road and not the railway.
With the current infrastructure, it is estimated that journey times could be reduced to about 3 hours and 20 minutes from Inverness to Wick, still 50 minutes slower than the road. With the Dornoch Link and other passing loops, that last 50 minutes is easily shaved off. With the Wick shuttle, Wick to Inverness by rail competes properly with the road. Suddenly, one has a proper railway that not only serves the needs the populations of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, but also a proper public transport link to Orkney and Shetland. Imagine being able to leave Orkney on the morning ferry, being in Inverness for lunchtime, Edinburgh for teatime, and London for an evening meal. This is something that is impossible at the moment without using the plane. Yes, it will cost money, but it is worth it for overall economic and social development and connectivity.
Will these Improvements Increase Patronage?
Patronage is increasing, even with a stagnant service. In the most recent statistics, patronage across the full length increased by 2.6% on the previous year. However, for the stations north of Tain, patronage decreased by 0.3%. In recent years, patronage across the majority of Far North stations has decreased. But, the last time there was a timetable improvement (when an additional full length service was introduced and the short-length services were also introduced) patronage increased significantly. Since 2004, patronage has increased by 200% for the line as a whole, with the northern stations increasing by 169% and the southern by 250%. Despite recent declines, the movement has been up. It is certainly up when there are improvements. Past improvements prove this.
The Beeching Legacy
All the loops that I have mentioned existed before Beeching. His infinite wisdom led to the lifting of several passing loops and the closure of multiple stations. However, instead of station closures being based on patronage, they were based on distance. Places like Evanton, Clachnaharry, Halkirk and Conon all lost their stations, whilst stations like Kildonan continued to exist. The Beeching cuts in the late 60s were still in the mind of builders in the 70s when the Dornoch Firth road bridge was being built and the railway was denied one.
Stations are slowly being re-built, with Conon Bridge being the latest station to reopen in 2013. However, this still leaves significant population centres without a rail link. Evanton (between Dingwall and Alness) is a prime example of this. Despite being one of the larger settlements on the line, Evanton lost its railway station in the 1960s. Some trains still have to stop in the Evanton area in order to wait for clearence into the bottleneck that is Dingwall to Inverness. The business case is favourable too, given that Stagecoach saw fit to divert the express Inverness to Dornoch bus route into Evanton.
What about Halkirk?
The other bigger settlement that the line misses entirely is Halkirk, right at the top of the line. Halkirk is part of the "Caithness Triangle" of Thurso, Wick and Halkirk (I made that phrase up, but it stands). Halkirk is currently served (sort of) by Scotscalder (way to the south and west) and Georgemas Junction (way to the east). Neither station really hits Halkirk with its catchment area, hence their very low and declining patronage figures. The former station at Halkirk station was situated roughly mid-way between these two stations. But, doesn't adding another station increase journey times? Well, not in this case.
Inverness to Thurso currently involves at reversal at Georgemas Junction railway station, adding 4 minutes to the journey time. Georgemas Junction serves very little, and was built in this location purely for railway operation, and not to serve any popultion. Thus, any serious proposal to re-open Halkirk station also includes an additional short piece of track which links Halkirk (and by extension Inverness) to Thurso, without the need to continue up the line to Georgemas Junction and reverse there. This would shorten journey times again by 5 minutes.
Most proposals for a new Halkirk station involve closing Georgemas Junction, since its purpose as a railway operations hub would be transferred to the new Halkirk station. For the puritans who see closing any station on the line as wrong, it could be retained as a stop on the Wick to Halkirk and Thurso shuttles, but would need to be renamed (possibly to Clayock) given that its position as a junction would be no longer. (Then again, there are several former junctions that have retained their suffix despite not being a junction anymore: see St Helens Junction and Burscough Junction.) However, I argue that retaining Georgemas Junction would not be necessary as Halkirk would serve the primary population centre better, and existing residents around Georgemas Junction would have their journey times to/from the station by an insignificant amount (the rail journey time is 3 minutes).
In order to increase patronage, one needs to invest money. The Far North Line needs more rolling stock and better infrastructure to provide a better service and thus increase patronage. If done properly, the increase could be seriously substantial. Even if done in small bits, there will be an improvement, both in terms of frequency and faster journey times. The line is a perfect case study of the benefits of proper and long-term investment, but also that when one neglects one's assets, they decline.