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Plan to increase visitors using the far north rail line

By Gordon Calder

A ScotRail train pulls away from the platform at Altnabreac on the far north line.
A ScotRail train pulls away from the platform at Altnabreac on the far north line.

A BID is to be made to increase the number of tourists on the rail route between Caithness and Inverness.

Transport Scotland is to work with the industry and bodies such as the North Highland Initiative to try to create a brand for the far north line and develop a detailed tourism pilot proposition to encourage more visitors to use the train.

A report in the latest issue of the Far North Express, the magazine of the Friends of the Far North Line, says: "There is clear potential to exploit the fact that the railway accesses parts of Sutherland and Caithness that are beyond the reach of the North Coast 500.

"Transport Scotland intends to maintain the momentum stimulated by the Far North Line Review Team through a single point of contact responsible for ensuring the consideration and, if appropriate, development and delivery of proposals with partners."

The review team was set up in December 2016 by Fergus Ewing, the rural economy secretary, with the aim of improving operational performance and journey time.

Speaking at the time, Mr Ewing said: "It is essential we make the most of this important asset for passengers, for sustainable freight transport and for the communities and businesses along the whole route."

The report also identifies opportunities for more freight to be transported on the rail line. "It is positive to note that the train carrying pipes from Hartlepool to Georgemas Junction for the offshore oil industry has restarted. Hitrans [the Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership] has been leading on various discussions, including the potential to restart timber movement by rail and these discussions are ongoing. There is a shared desire across both industries to find a workable solution."

The review team comprised senior representatives of Transport Scotland, Network Rail, ScotRail, Hitrans, Highland Council, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Caithness Transport Forum and Friends of the Far North Line.

Included in its list of achievements is the upgrading of two level crossings to full barriers, the upgrading of open level crossing operations at Brora, Lairg and Rogart to deliver improved line speed and a reduction in the end-to-end journey time, as well as the creation of six new full-time posts in Helmsdale to address fencing and vegetation issues along the line.

The roll-out of customer information screens at key stations was also completed. Most of the screens are powered by solar energy.

A technical and strategic analysis was undertaken on the line to assess "the magnitude of improvements required to the track and signalling systems to support the proposed new enhanced service specification", the report adds.

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