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New community rail group hopes to promote tourism on Far North line in Caithness and Sutherland; People with a 'passion for trains' invited to put their names forward to become trustees

By Caroline McMorran

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A new group is being formed in an ambitious bid to reinvigorate the Far North rail line in Caithness and Sutherland, it has emerged.

It is hoped the Far North Line Community Rail Partnership will encourage more visitors to the area and help the North Highlands recover economically from the coronavirus pandemic.

The far north railway line runs through stunning scenery from Inverness to Wick and Thurso.
The far north railway line runs through stunning scenery from Inverness to Wick and Thurso.

A call went out this week for local people with a “passion for trains, an interest in sustainable travel or just a love for the communities served by the line built by the Iron Duke’, to become involved in the initiative.

Funding has already been pledged to appoint a community partnership officer for a year and ScotRail has also agreed to provide some financial aid.

Built between 1862-74, the 161-mile Far North Line runs from Inverness to Wick and Thurso. It is considered one of Britain’s great railway journeys but is viewed as underutilised.

However, a report by the Office of Rail and Road did record a rise of 7.4 per cent to 37,770 in passenger numbers at Sutherland stations in 2018/19.

The partnership initiative is being driven forward by Michael Willmot, well known in East Sutherland for his transformation of Helmsdale Railway Station.

Michael Willmot.
Michael Willmot.

Mr Willmot, who has chaired a rail partnership in England for 15 years, said: “It has been on the cards for a little while but like so many other things came to a grinding halt when Covid-19 came along. I think the partnership could be particularly relevant now.”

Community rail partnerships have operated in England since the 1990s and were introduced to Scotland in 2012. There are now six groups north of the border including one on the Perth to Inverness line. They provide a framework for greater community involvement in strategic planning, development and operation of a line.

The new group will include representatives from ScotRail, as well as from communities and tourism organisations along the route.

Mr Willmot said: “A community rail partnership forms a bridge between the railway and its local communities. It brings together a wide range of interests along the rail corridor to develop and promote the line and all its associated features and amenities.

“Such a partnership can boost tourism and make the rail service more responsive to local needs.”

The aims are not just to promote the line and the businesses, services and visitor attractions which can be reached on it, but to improve its stations and work towards better public transport integrated timetabling and integrated ticketing.

The person appointed as community partnership officer will spend the first year in post making contact with businesses, services and attractions along the line.

“During this year a website and other publicity material would be developed,” said Mr Willmot. “If initial activity was successful, the officer would be making funding applications to secure the partnership’s work into the future.”

A Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (SCIO) is being established to administer the funding and to provide a management group to oversee the work of the rail partnership.

Mr Willmot said: “We are seeking trustees and management group representatives with community connections along the line who can help with the establishment of the venture and contribute to boosting the return of visitors to this part of the country and the revival of the local economy.”

For further information or to express an interest in becoming part of the initiative, email Mr Willmot at: helmsdalestation@gmail.com

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