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Far north on track for 'a more reliable railway' within five years


By Gordon Calder


A train at Altnabreac on the far north line.
A train at Altnabreac on the far north line.

RAIL passengers in Caithness and Sutherland can look forward to "a more reliable railway" in the next five years, a former chairman of Friends of the Far North Line has said.

Mike Lunan, who is now a committee member of the campaign group, was speaking after figures in a report by the Office of Rail and Road showed the number of Caithness rail passengers increased by 2.4 per cent in 2018/19 to more than 60,000.

The report reveals that 60,086 passengers used the five stations in the county compared with 58,690 in 2017/18. Thurso at 67 per cent accounted for most of the business, with Wick at 30 per cent.

It states that Thurso railway station had 39,974 passengers, up by two per cent compared with the 39,174 in the previous year. Wick had 17,890 passengers, also two per cent higher than the 17,546 in the previous year.

The statistics show that Georgemas Junction had 1576 passengers – an increase of 19.4 per cent – but that is lower than the 1906 it had in 2012/13.

Scotscalder also did better with 238 passengers, up 30.8 per cent on the previous year, but fewer than the 460 in 2012/13.

Altnabreac had 408 passengers, 38 per cent lower than the 658 peak in 2017/18.

Sutherland recorded a rise of 7.4 per cent in its passenger numbers to a record 37,770, according to the report.

Seven of its stations recorded rises and five falls. Ardgay had the largest number of rail passengers (6998), just six more than at Brora (6992) – its best performance in the last decade. The smallest total was just 168 passengers at Kildonan.

Mr Lunan said: "It is pleasing and rewarding that more people are using the railway and that is perhaps because the quality of the service has improved, although there is still a long way to go.

"The route is attractive to tourists, the seats are comfortable, there are toilets on the train and plenty room for luggage. The real downside is the reliability of the service, which is not all that good. The trolley provision is poor, although that is due to staffing problems."

Mr Lunan pointed out the figures produced in there reports are "always under-recorded" as they reflect the number of tickets bought at the station or on the train. They do not include passengers on season or similar types of tickets.

"The numbers are an approximation but it is good they are going up," he said. "I am not surprised that some people who previously used the bus are now travelling by train."

Mr Lunan, who lives in Thurso, said ScotRail is "working away behind the scenes" to address problems and he is hopeful if all goes to plan by the end of 2024 people in the far north will have "a more reliable railway" and that could attract more passengers to use the service.

Caithness civic leader Willie Mackay said: "This is very encouraging for the far north line. We have heard about the trains breaking down and calls for improvements to the service, but if more people are using the train then that is great news."



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