Far North Line

In the first part of a spe­cial two-part fo­cus on Scot­land’s Far North Line, AN­DREW MOURANT trav­els from In­ver­ness to Thurso, with storm Ophe­lia threat­en­ing his jour­ney through re­mote ham­lets

Rail (UK) - - Con­tents - RAIL pho­tog­ra­phy: GRAEME EL­GAR

In the first of a two-part spe­cial fo­cus, RAIL trav­els on Scot­land’s Far North Line from In­ver­ness to Thurso.

The easyJet air­craft had twice cir­cled the run­way at Bris­tol Air­port be­fore fi­nally dar­ing to land in a stiff­en­ing cross wind. Af­ter a swift turn­around, it wob­bled un­nerv­ingly on take-off for In­ver­ness. It was the first stage of RAIL’s jour­ney to Thurso - planned on a balmy day in early Oc­to­ber, but un­der­taken amid the rem­nants of hur­ri­cane Ophe­lia.

The omens weren’t good. This could be­come a tale of missed con­nec­tions, or even of a knock­out blow for the Far North Line’s sole af­ter­noon ser­vice. Ophe­lia (what re­mained of her) was due to rip through Caith­ness by early evening. What might that mean for a line no­to­ri­ously sus­cep­ti­ble to late run­ning?

This was a last chance day - the fi­nal one when a cheap re­turn flight from Bris­tol linked to a train that should, in the­ory, make it most of the way to Thurso be­fore night­fall. There would be no more easyJet bar­gain days be­fore the end of sum­mer time drew a black blind over north­ern Scot­land by mid-af­ter­noon.

Yet, as luck would have it, Ophe­lia didn’t blow the timetable off-course. The 1400 from In­ver­ness was a run­ner - nearly full, with most seats re­served. There were pas­sen­gers of all ages, many with small suit­cases - the bag­gage of short-break hol­i­day­mak­ers.

On time, but no ca­ter­ing trol­ley ser­vice. That’s all too of­ten the way, ac­cord­ing to those who mon­i­tor the Far North Line’s daily per­for­mance. In­ver­ness sta­tion of­fers a mea­gre choice of food and drink, so trav­ellers should ar­rive pre­pared. Oth­er­wise, any­one ven­tur­ing to Wick faces al­most four and a half hours with­out sus­te­nance.

The train is a two-coach re­fur­bished Class 158. Its plus points: a lug­gage rack mid­car­riage, and WiFi that works. Com­fort­able enough, although too lit­tle leg-room if you sit at a ta­ble. My trav­el­ling com­pan­ions sit­ting op­po­site are a par­tially sighted young woman

In­ver­ness sta­tion of­fers a mea­gre choice of food and drink, so trav­ellers should ar­rive pre­pared. Oth­er­wise, any­one ven­tur­ing to Wick faces al­most four and a half hours with­out sus­te­nance.

and her af­fec­tion­ate black Labrador guide dog, al­ready with a four-hour rail jour­ney from Ed­in­burgh un­der their belt. It makes for a bit of a squeeze.

First stop is Beauly. The orig­i­nal sta­tion build­ing is a foursquare stone house with Dutch-style stepped gables, served - like so many with short plat­forms on this route - by a sin­gle exit, the rear door of the front coach. Not just short - at 49.4 feet Beauly’s plat­form is the UK’s short­est.

Pulling away, some­thing un­nerv­ing starts to un­fold. Day­light be­gins drain­ing away as though early af­ter­noon is mak­ing a freak­ish head­long dash for dark­ness. Half past two has sud­denly come to re­sem­ble half past six. The view to the south east is of a sa­tanic black­ness more pro­found than at the sun’s to­tal eclipse.

The sky looks doom-laden, threat­en­ing a down­pour that might wash away any­thing in its path. (A trick, it later tran­spires, of Ophe­lia’s weather sys­tem, which had sucked in Sa­ha­ran dust and smoke from for­est fires sweep­ing across cen­tral Por­tu­gal.)

At Conon Bridge, re­opened in 2013 af­ter 53 years clo­sure, street lamps are al­ready on, and lights glow from liv­ing rooms.

At In­ver­gor­don, two stops be­yond Ding­wall (the point at which the line to Kyle of Lochalsh peels off west), the sense of daynight is height­ened as oil-rigs an­chored in the Cro­marty Firth, an­i­mated by studs and splashes of light, creep spook­ily into view. Over the water, the land­scape of Black Isle is barely vis­i­ble.

The Far North Line (FNL) is renowned for mag­i­cal scenery, but rarely can it have looked like this be­fore mid-af­ter­noon. As the time inches to­wards 1500, some­thing of the black­ness lifts, but not com­pletely, although we are spared the tor­ren­tial rain that had looked in­evitable.

The line is dot­ted with com­fort­ing do­mes­tic sta­tion build­ings, as well as small func­tional mod­ern shel­ters. At Tain, it swings north west fol­low­ing the south­ern flank of Dornoch Firth, and runs ex­hil­a­rat­ingly close to a shore­line of rocks, sea­weed, mud and sand - de­lights that make any joyrider won­der ‘why would any­one ac­tu­ally want this line to run more quickly?’ (In this leisurely spirit, the loop of pre-recorded stop an­nounce­ments is lag­ging one sta­tion be­hind!)

Yet prag­ma­tists do. Peo­ple worry about the eco­nomics of FNL’s sur­vival and the

At Tain, it swings north west fol­low­ing the south­ern flank of Dornoch Firth, and runs ex­hil­a­rat­ingly close to a shore­line of rocks, sea­weed, mud and sand - de­lights that make any joyrider won­der ‘why would any­one ac­tu­ally want this line to run more quickly?’

opportunities that swifter trains might of­fer lo­cal peo­ple.

Dornoch Firth marks the start of an ex­trav­a­gant de­tour in­land. The loop in­land from Tain via Ardgay to Lairg has never fol­lowed the A9 - in­stead, it was in­tended to open Suther­land’s re­mote heart­land. But it’s long been ar­gued that this leg (and the sta­tions it serves) could be cut out, that a 900-me­tre bridge across the water could lop 26 miles and 45 min­utes off the jour­ney time.

RAIL picked up this de­bate back in 2013. A Dornoch link would make the Far North less re­mote, its pro­mot­ers say. It might en­cour­age more peo­ple to do busi­ness there; more tourists to en­joy the scenery.

There is also the so­cial in­clu­sion ques­tion, of bol­ster­ing and im­prov­ing ac­ces­si­bil­ity to so re­mote an area. A bridge might open up a new rail com­muter op­tion to In­ver­ness for res­i­dents of Dornoch town and neigh­bour­ing vil­lages. Com­muter ser­vices from Tain - barely three miles south as the crow flies - could com­pete with the A9 trunk road, cam­paign­ers add. But for the fore­see­able fu­ture, the line will con­tinue to wan­der its dog­leg way. As dis­tant hills loom into view from the north, by Ardgay (at the head of Dornoch Firth) the murk thins a lit­tle more. Here the line creeps fur­ther north and in­land, and two sta­tions lie very close to­gether - Cul­rain and then (across the viaduct span­ning Kyle of Suther­land) In­ver­shin. It is 1550 - we are roughly half­way.

A sense of re­mote­ness be­gins to ex­ert its grip. The oc­ca­sional small vil­lage, a farm, fields - and then the land­scape drifts into rugged moor­land and sparse veg­e­ta­tion.

At Lairg, its sta­tion a mile and a half out of town, the line then dips south east to Rog­art, a halt that closed in 1960 only to re­open a year later, but at which this train doesn’t stop.

At Gol­spie, it re­joins the coast to be­gin one of its most mes­meris­ing stretches - 50049 De­fi­ance at Wick on Oc­to­ber 7 2007, with an In­ver­ness-Thurso rail­tour. Run­ning 161 miles from In­ver­ness, the line to Bri­tain’s most northerly town was not com­pleted un­til 1874.

hug­ging miles of rocky coast and golden sand, waves break­ing dis­tantly, through sta­tions at Dun­robin Cas­tle and Brora (whose epony­mous river rushes through tree-lined banks to the sea), and Helms­dale (the gate­way to Caith­ness).

Here, once more, the route swings away in­land, north­west. It re­lin­quishes the A9, whose route it had tracked for 15 miles or so, and heads up broad river val­leys - Strath Ul­lie and Strath of Kil­don­nan. It fol­lows the fast-flow­ing River Helms­dale, a con­stant com­pan­ion to the jour­ney’s lat­ter stages.

The ex­is­tence of sta­tions such as Kil­do­nan, re­ported to be the line’s least used, seems ever more im­prob­a­ble as we reach the thresh­old of Bri­tain’s great wilder­ness, Flow Coun­try, the largest ex­panse of blan­ket bog in Europe cov­er­ing 4,000 square kilo­me­tres.

A phe­nom­e­non dat­ing from the end of the last Ice Age, the bog de­vel­oped due to damp, acid con­di­tions that en­cour­aged the growth of sphag­num moss. When rot­ted, this forms peat. Un­suit­able for farm­ing, the area has been largely spared hu­man de­vel­op­ment. But in the 1980s, some ar­eas were planted with non-na­tive conifers which, along with ar­ti­fi­cial drainage, dried out the peat and con­trib­uted to its ero­sion. Many of those trees have been felled, and at­tempts made to re­store the bog.

Flow Coun­try makes for an eerie sight in the thick­en­ing twi­light. Water ev­ery­where - streams, small splashes of loch, un­tamed. Civil­i­sa­tion ab­sent. There is a road through here, too - the A897 cuts up from Helms­dale to­wards the north coast - but there’s no traf­fic on it. Forsi­nard sta­tion, an­other out­post in the mid­dle of nowhere, seems en­tirely to cater for bird watch­ers vis­it­ing its RSPB cen­tre.

Now the line veers firmly north east. There’s no stop­ping at Altnabreac - miles from any road and served only by a long rough track, and used al­most ex­clu­sively as a re­quest stop by walk­ers.

On we go, with­out paus­ing at Scotscalder, to Ge­orge­mas Junc­tion, al­most at jour­ney’s end. Here the train used to di­vide, with one part head­ing to Thurso and the other to Wick. No longer - Wick pas­sen­gers must sit tight as the train goes into re­verse and out of its way, serv­ing Thurso first.

Against the odds we ar­rive on time, at 1850, in Bri­tain’s most northerly town. With the hol­i­day sea­son in re­treat, there have been few com­ings and go­ings af­ter In­ver­ness, and those dis­em­bark­ing were greeted by a part­ing shot from the dwin­dling hur­ri­cane. It’s 10° colder than in Bris­tol, with fine rain driven by a stiff wind. Thurso ap­pears to have hun­kered down for the evening.

Yet it proves to be a hos­pitable place, at least if RAIL’s ex­pe­ri­ence is any yard­stick. In Thurso and Wick, B&B own­ers are used to work­ing around the train, and seem un­fazed by its va­garies. If the 1820 from In­ver­ness (the last of the day) is de­layed, they find them­selves meet­ing and greet­ing trav­ellers at hours most peo­ple would shun.

My bil­let is Bed and Break­fast at 4 - com­fort­able, and run hos­pitably and with good hu­mour by Claire and Richard Spargo. They pick me up, get up be­fore 0600 next day to cook a hearty fry-up, and then run me back to the sta­tion. The Spar­gos are a fount of in­for­ma­tion about things I never get to see, plans to ex­plore Thurso’s har­bour by night hav­ing been scup­pered by the in­ces­sant rain. I leave as I ar­rive, in dark­ness, but grate­ful that the weather has re­lented and that the 0650 back to In­ver­ness is only four min­utes late from Wick.

The sta­tion build­ing is shut, as it had been on ar­rival. So are the toi­lets which, ac­cord­ing to the no­tice on wall, would open at 0954. On the dot, ev­ery day? Why so pre­cise?

Ten pas­sen­gers join this early train, which has a bleary-eyed feel about it. One is a man from Scrab­ster, the de­par­ture point for fer­ries to the Orkneys. He is head­ing all the way to Dover (his job is lay­ing trench ca­bles), and he is also fly­ing from In­ver­ness. He could have trav­elled by bus or hire car, but prefers the rail jour­ney. He uses the train for plea­sure, and

A sense of re­mote­ness be­gins to ex­ert its grip. The oc­ca­sional small vil­lage, a farm, fields - and then the land­scape drifts into rugged moor­land and sparse veg­e­ta­tion.

The last ever Class 158 in Na­tional Ex­press ScotRail liv­ery (158719) waits at Plat­form 5, ready to work the 1754 In­ver­ness-Wick on July 1 2008. It will take more than four and a half hours to com­plete its jour­ney. Class­mate 158715 Hay­mar­ket pre­pares to de­part from Plat­form 6 with the 1712 to Ardgay.

ScotRail 158706 de­parts Beauly, and Bri­tain’s short­est plat­form, on De­cem­ber 4 with the 0855 In­ver­ness-Kyle of Lochalsh.

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