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22 March 04

SNP MSP for the Highlands and Islands Rob Gibson has lodged a motion in Parliament calling for the Scottish Executive to undertake a strategic assessment of the Rail link between Inverness, Thurso and Wick.

MR Gibson lodged his motion after Highlands and Islands Enterprise published a report showing an increase in the amount of people using the railways in the Highlands. He sees this report a an excellent opportunity to construct a Dornoch Rail Bridge which would cut 45 minutes off the time that it takes to travel from Inverness to the far North.....

"The HIE Report shows that more and more people are willing to travel by train and therefore it is important that every possibility to make the journey quicker is explored and I see no reason why a rail crossing over the Dornoch Firth couldn't work."

He went on....This is not a new idea, indeed in the mid 1980's it nearly went ahead, I feel that a feasibility study should be done to assess what economic and  social impact such a structure would bring to Sutherland and Caithness. If the Scottish Executive are as committed to rural areas and public transport as they say they are then they should be willing to, at the very least, undertake this study."

He said that a Dornoch Rail Bridge would not mean the closure of the Lairg Loop.... "A new rail crossing would have the potential to increase tourism and trade for the Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. The Lairg loop could be marketed separately, For example it could be attractive to a steam train venture. I see no reason why a special train could not be used for the Lairg Loop while the express travels directly over the Dornoch Firth to the North."

Rob's motion in full:
S2M-1056 - That the Parliament welcomes the Scottish Executive's claim to record investment in public transport; notes its backing to reopen rail routes such as Stirling, Alloa to Kincardine and part of the Waverley Line; also notes the recent Highlands and Islands Enterprise report showing the growing demand to use the rail network in the Highlands that shows it could be increased further by more investment in infrastructure and timetables; and calls on the Scottish Executive to initiate a strategic assessment of the rail service between Inverness, Thurso and Wick with particular attention to the feasibility of a Dornoch Firth rail crossing to shorten significantly the rail journey times on the route taking into account specific provision for the Lairg loop stations.

18 March 04
Demand for rail services in the Highlands has grown significantly in recent years according to a major new report published by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).

The study challenges perceptions that the Highland rail network is lightly used, dominated by tourist traffic and represents poor value for the public funding it receives. It details how rail contributes significantly to the Highlands and Islands' economy, supporting more than 1,500 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs and underpins the viability of many businesses in the region.

It also describes how the network helps to retain population in more remote areas and provides important onward links to island communities. The report also considers the importance of rail freight and the rail network's environmental benefits.

HIE will use the findings to continue to make the case for further investment in the region's rail network and service improvements in the new ScotRail franchise, which will be awarded later this year.

HIE's transport policy manager Tom Matthew said the research underlined the contribution that rail services already make to the region's well-being as well as the potential benefits of further improvements.
He said: "There is a perception in some quarters of a railway network in terminal decline and both at UK and Scottish levels there is pressure to focus investment on urban rail services. The merits of retaining rail services in less populated areas have been questioned. The image projected is of a lightly-used rail network, used mainly by tourists and providing poor value for the public sector money it receives.

"The report we have commissioned shows this not to be the case. It demonstrates strong passenger growth, a significant economic contribution, social inclusion benefits and relieving pressure on the road network.

"The findings support the strong role that HIE has adopted in support of the rail network. We are the main funder of the rail development group The Highland Rail Partnership, while we are also supporting the Invernet project with 200,000 funding.

"HIE will continue to work with our partners and the rail industry to achieve improvements such as reduced journey times, more frequent and regular services between Aberdeen and Inverness, further rail commuting opportunities and continued growth in rail freight."

The research revealed a significant growth in passenger traffic on Highland lines between the start of the current ScotRail franchise in 1997/98 and 2002/03. The greatest rise (50 per cent) was on the Far North Line between Inverness and Thurso/Wick. This was mainly due to the introduction of a commuter service between Tain and Inverness and the reopening of Beauly Station. The growth on other services was:

* Kyle Line (Inverness-Kyle of Lochalsh) 40 per cent
* Highland Main Line (Inverness-Glasgow/Edinburgh) 35 per cent
* West Highland Line (Glasgow-Oban/Fort William/Mallaig) 20 per cent

Traffic on the Inverness-Aberdeen line as a whole grew by only 13 per cent, which, HIE believes, highlights the need for significant investment and service improvements if it is to realise its full potential. However, the line remains the busiest in the HIE area. Inverness is the busiest station with over 700,000 passengers annually, followed by Elgin at 190,000.

The research reveals that rail contributes substantially to the region's economy. It supports 1,506 FTE jobs, which would not exist without the rail network, even after allowing for "leakage" of expenditure from the Highlands and Islands by local residents who make rail trips to other parts of the country. Around 450 of these are directly or indirectly rail-related, while the remainder are jobs supported by expenditure from leisure and business visitors travelling into the region by rail. Over a third of tourists using the rail network would not visit the area if rail services ceased.

Local people are also important users of the rail network. In the "on-train" surveys carried out for the study, 40 per cent of interviewees were Highlands and Islands residents.

The economic cost of losing the rail network, in terms of additional time, travel costs, loss of the ability to work on the train and other disadvantages to individuals and businesses was calculated at up to 493 million over 30 years.

Rail freight has grown substantially and removes the equivalent of over 25,000 lorry loads and seven million road miles from the road network. The environmental benefit of this has been calculated as 47 million over 30 years. Recent developments have included parcels traffic to Inverness and oil traffic to Lairg and Fort William.

Other key findings include:

  • Contribution to social inclusion: 40 per cent of residents questioned in "on train" surveys did not own a car, compared to the average of 25 per cent for the region's population as a whole. 22 per cent of trips on the rail network are undertaken to visit friends and relatives.

  • Retention of population: on some lines, over 20 per cent of residents said they would move to a larger town or leave the region entirely if rail services ceased.

  • Supporting an integrated transport network: 10 per cent of local people interviewed were island residents. Passengers travelling to/from one of the islands comprised 22 per cent of those surveyed on the Oban line.

  • Environmental benefits: new commuter services reduce congestion on roads. Over a 30-year period, the environmental benefits from lower car traffic, through reduced noise, air pollution and other factors, are calculated at 20 million.

The Rail Report On Highlands And Islands Enterprise Web Site (Pdf format)