IMPROVEMENTS to rail services in Caithness and Sutherland could result in journey times being shortened by up to half an hour.
That was the view of Caithness Transport Forum chairman John Green who this week responded to the Scottish Government's Rail 2014 Public Consultation.
The group believes that enhancing railway lines are vital if attempts are to be successful in regenerating the North Highlands.
The consultation document, which was released in November, puts forward the Government's vision of rail services in Scotland and caused anger in the Far North when there was no mention of any improvements being made between Wick and Inverness.
It also sparked controversy when the consultation proposed scrapping direct sleeper services from Inverness, Fort William and Aberdeen to London, suggesting passengers instead change trains at Waverley Station in Edinburgh.
Mr Green told the John O'Groat Journal that journeys between Wick and Inverness, which currently take over four hours, could be significantly reduced if funding is made available, saying that more investment is needed if the region's economy is to improve. "There has been no mention of the Far North line other than for it to remain as it is as they say that there is no business case for improving it," he said.
"A survey from the Dornoch Rail Link Action Group suggested that more people would use rail services if journey times were improved.
"However, there are always competing demands for road improvements, such as the Berriedale Braes, for which the argument is probably stronger.
"Various ideas have been suggested as to how journey times in the Far North could be shortened; it would still be a long journey but small improvements could make a big difference.
"Any shortening on the time on the rail line would be appreciated by rail users and would increase the number of people on these services."
The survey conducted by DoRLAG questioned 387 people, of which 211 were based in Caithness, with the majority saying that they make between one to four trips from the Far North to Inverness every year. When asked what mode of transport they use to make the journey, 56 per cent said they travelled by car compared to only 24 per cent who use trains.
The forum has suggested that the Scottish Government should introduce a 15-year franchise period to allow long-term planning and investment in rural rail in the region.
It also recommends that innovative fare structuring should be used to increase off-peak usage, making travel by rail greener and more affordable.