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Far North Line through Caithness and Sutherland is officially recognised by Scottish Government as a Community Rail Partnership route

By Caroline McMorran

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A voluntary group working towards the reinvigoration of the Far North Line in Caithness and Sutherland has achieved a major goal.

The Far North Line Community Rail Partnership has succeeded in its application to the Scottish Government for the line through the two northernmost counties to be designated as the ninth Community Rail Partnership (CRP) route in Scotland.

Scottish Transport Minister Kevin Stewart officially welcomed and approved the line’s new status at an event held in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday, May 24, to celebrate community rail across Scotland.

Michael Willmot (left) and David Watson flank transport minister Kevin Stewart.
Michael Willmot (left) and David Watson flank transport minister Kevin Stewart.

Mr Stewart said: “Community Rail Partnerships are the embodiment of very passionate and dedicated people who volunteer on our railways.

“The work they do improves stations and lines across the country, bringing together communities and giving greater local buy-in to Scotland’s railway.

“That is why I am delighted to approve and welcome the new Far North Line Community Rail Partnership.”

The Far North Line Community Rail Partnership was loosely formed in 2020 and officially launched at celebrations held in Helmsdale in June 2022 to mark the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Duke of Sutherland’s Railway between Dunrobin Castle and Helmsdale.

RELATED: Far North Line Community Rail Partnership taking shape with aim of reinvigorating line north of Tain and encouraging travellers to stop off at local communities

Group chairman is David Watson, manager of the Kyle of Sutherland Development Trust; and secretary is Michael Willmot who is well known for steering an ambitious project to breathe new life into Helmsdale Railway Station.

Current members of the management group include a number of experienced community development professionals with a track record of raising external funding and delivering community projects.

The organisation also has representation from Venture North, the development management group for Caithness and Sutherland and the North Highland Climate Hub.

Community Rail Partnerships have operated in England since the 1990s and were introduced in Scotland in 2012. They provide a framework for greater community involvement in strategic planning, development and operation of a line.

CRPs bring together a wide range of interests along the rail corridor to develop and promote the line and all its associated features and amenities.

Built between 1862-1874, the 161-mile Far North Line runs from Inverness to Wick and Thurso and is considered one of Britain’s great railway journeys but is viewed as underutilised.

The Far North Line north of Kinbrace.
The Far North Line north of Kinbrace.
Trains passing at Helmsdale Station.
Trains passing at Helmsdale Station.

Mr Watson said: “The Far North Line is a world class but underperforming asset. The journey itself is an amazing experience with an incredible variety of natural and cultural assets along its length.

“Although it is restricted by its engineering, it presents an amazing opportunity to help sustain the communities that it serves.

“The CRP will form a link between the railway and local communities, bringing together a range of stakeholders, including local businesses and services along the rail corridor to develop and promote the line, local communities and attractions.”

Mr Willmot said it was hoped that the partnership would boost tourism and make the rail service more responsive to local needs.

“There is renewed interest in sustainable transport, not just between train and bus but through the use of other transport resources such as e-bikes and community transport schemes,” he said.

“We recognise that there has been growing concern about the number of cars and motorhomes attracted to the North Coast 500 by promotion of the tourism route.

“This CRP should help to develop alternatives to private vehicles for exploring the North Highlands as well as provide improved public transport for local communities.

“There are amazing opportunities for visitors to slow down and immerse themselves in the unique culture of Caithness and Sutherland.”

The Far North Line CRP will work in partnership with ScotRail as well as local rail user group the Friends of the Far North Line and representatives of communities and tourism organisations along the route.

David Simpson, ScotRail service delivery director, said: “I wholeheartedly welcome the establishment of the Far North Line Community Rail Partnership.

"We look forward to the journey ahead and the positive impact that the CRP will undoubtedly bring in enhancing the route’s potential as a vital lifeline and catalyst for economic growth throughout Caithness and Sutherland.

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