Ken Sutherland, the research officer for Railfuture Scotland, has suggested that special fare concessions should be allowed on train services on the Far North line between Inverness and Wick/Thurso. This is in response to a decline in passenger numbers which have fallen from 12% at Thurso and 11% at Wick over a three year period from 2004 to 2007. The figures also reveal reductions at Rogart 17%, Lairg 9%, Golspie 8% and Brora 5%.
Mr Sutherland attributes this decline to the free travel on buses for those over 60, which also allows them to travel on the competing Stagecoach 25X bus service. He believes the solution lies in a similar initiative being introduced by the Scottish Government for the rail network. He commented, "There is no reason why a pilot scheme should not be introduced on the Far North line. It has been suggested that there may be inadequate train capacity to accommodate such additional train patronage but there are a range of measures which could be applied sensitively to respond to such additional demand if this genuinely presented some insurmountable difficulty."
A First ScotRail spokesman said that contrary to reports, the company is witnessing growth in rail travel in the Highlands. "There is also a well-established Highland Council concessionary travel scheme in place, offering half-price single and return fares on routes including Inverness to Wick and Thurso. We work closely with many local authorities and industry partners across Scotland on concessionary fare schemes for senior citizens and the disabled. That will continue."
In the current timetable, on Mondays to Saturdays, there are three train services from Inverness to Wick via Thurso and four in the reverse direction. On Sundays there is just one train in each direction. The current timetable for the Stagecoach 25X bus service has 6 journeys in each direction between Inverness and Thurso, and 5 on Sundays.
The adult return fare by train from Inverness to Thurso is £26.40 for an Anytime Return. On the 25X bus service it is £18.93 for an Apex Return.
The distance by rail is 175 miles, and by road, thanks to improvements to the A9 such as the Kessock Bridge near Inverness, 124.7 miles. The train takes 4 hours and 20 minutes, and the bus services take an everage of 4 hours, the latter having received much local criticism following an increase in the journey time.
Further changes to the 25X are planned from December 8th which will see this journey time cut, with a more direct twice daily service. Commercial manager for Stagecoach in the Highlands, William Mainus, said: "At the meeting with Caithness Transport Forum concerns were discussed regarding the 25X service and it was noted that we are working on speeding up journeys between Caithness and Inverness. We have prepared a draft timetable where the first two departures from Thurso operate a quicker journey. The 6.55am, that operates via Wick, would arrive 20 minutes earlier and the 7.55am, that operates via Halkirk, would arrive earlier at 11.14am, both allowing for better connections south. Two faster journeys north in the afternoon are planned to improve connections at Inverness going to Thurso and meeting the ferry at Scrabster. It was also discussed that we will be reviewing possible enhancements to the 25X timetable for summer 2009, which will include two daily through journeys to Orkney. This will facilitate faster services for Thurso by interchange at Dunbeath." (Photos: LEYTR) (PW)